New York Court Of Appeals To Decide If An Asian Elephant Has Human Rights

Happy, an Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo, is at the center of a legal dispute over the rights of animals in custodial situations. Her case is before the New York State Court of Appeals and a decision is expected within a few months. The zoo is being sued claiming Happy is essentially a prisoner.

Whether non-human animals have rights similar to or equal to human rights is an emerging legal question. The concept is controversial and could create enormous changes in social structure. At the moment there are laws regulating how animals are treated but advocates are seeking to recognize humans and non-human animals as essentially equal. In theory this could put an end to farming and pet ownership. It could also drastically alter who makes decisions about how you treat companion animals. At the very least it creates the specter of lawyers “representing” specific animals in court.

hippos in water
A federal judge has written an opinion giving hippos at least some human rights.The opinion was in a Colombian case and had no impact there. But it may have impact on cases here. Photo by Pixabay on

A court in Ecuador has recently expanded animal rights in a case involving a monkey living with a person. That court went even further arguing that nature itself has enforceable rights to protect itself from human activity. It is still unclear exactly who can represent “nature” in court.

An Associated Press picture of Happy at the zoo

Happy’s case is before the New York Court of Appeal, the court of last resort in the state. The chief judge and six associates are faced with a habeas corpus request for Happy. Habeas corpus is a key legal right for people allowing them to challenge their detention and seek release. The Nonhuman Rights Project is suing, so far unsuccessfully, to challenge the living conditions the Bronx Zoo has for Happy. The project seeks to grant all the rights humans share to non-human animals. Their habeas corpus lawsuit is based on the argument that Happy’s living conditions are substandard and amount to a prison, They want her transferred to a more spacious facility.

The zoo, which was founded in November 1899 defends itself by saying in is a premier agent for conservation and home to 10,000 animals, many endangered, on 200 acres. The zoo also built an early veterinary hospital in 1910.

NPR and WBEZ Chicago quoted an Associated Press Story:

“She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with, and where to go, and what to do, and what to eat,” project attorney Monica Miller told The Associated Press ahead of the oral arguments. “And the zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself.”

Exactly how the project knows what the elephant is thinking and what she wants to do was not revealed. Attorney Miller may have spotlighted the key issue. Animals can not directly communicate with humans and what they want and need is determined by humans based on observation and study. So exactly who decides what their rights are? At least in theory zoos are professional managers of wild animals and provide adequate care. If they fail to do so they are currently liable under animal cruelty laws. Based on Miller’s quote it sounds like Happy should be returned to the wild, which might prove fatal.

Many other questions arise For example:

What would happen if Happy were removed to another facility and failed to thrive or missed her previous keepers? Or if someone else deemed that facility unsuitable?

The Bronx Zoo rejects the idea that Happy’s one-acre enclosure is a prison as the project calls it and says she is a beloved elephant, but not a person.

A map of the Bronx Zoo. Happy lives on nearly 1 acre in the 200 acre zoo

Happy was born wild in the early 1970’s and came to the zoo some years later. She and her companion, Grumpy, lived together. They were named after Disney characters in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Grumpy died after a confrontation with two other elephants. Currently, Happy lives near but not with another elephant. The zoo feels her enclosure is spacious and allows her to engage in normal elephant behaviors. She can swim and forage and they say she has good quality care. She has lived there for more than 40 years.

photo of tiger and cub lying down on grass
A world without zoos and sanctuaries might well be a world without tigers living in the wild. Fewer than 5,000 remain in the wild. Zoos and sanctuaries preserve the species. Photo by Waldemar Brandt on

Some might find the idea of an animal rights group suing an accredited zoo somewhat ironic. Zoos and sanctuaries are at the heart of efforts to prevent extinction of many animals. The also maintain records of bloodlines to prevent inbreeding for future rewilding efforts. Tigers are an example. Although there has been a recent uptick estimates are that only 5,000 or so tigers are alive in the wild. A larger number than that is believed to be in zoos, sanctuaries and other private hands in the United States. Zoos are critical, zoo operators say, to animal survival.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: