Happy the elephant cannot be legally considered a human and can be kept at the Bronx Zoo, New York’s highest court has ruled.
The Nonhuman Rights Project had brought a case challenging the zoo’s confinement of the 41-year-old elephant, but it was rejected in a 5-2 decision by the state Court of Appeals.
The group had argued that Happy is an intelligent being, who should be able to sue under habeas corpus against illegal detention.
But in the decision, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote that “while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion”, a writ of habeas corpus did not apply to a non-human animal such as Happy.
A habeas corpus proceeding is a way for an individual to challenge illegal detention or confinement.
The majority decision continued that allowing Happy to challenge her confinement at the zoo “would have an enormous destabilising impact on modern society”.
It added: “Indeed, followed to its logical conclusion, such a determination would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.”
Zoo officials argued that Happy was neither a person nor illegally imprisoned, but an elephant that is “respected as the magnificent creature she is.”
Judges Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera, wrote separate dissents that said that being an animal did not mean Happy did not have legal rights.
Judge Rivera wrote that Happy had been held in “an environment that is unnatural to her and And she added: “Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive — a spectacle for humans — we, too, are diminished.”
The court’s decision cannot be appealed.
Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s, before being captured and brought to the US as a one-year-old, and arrived at the zoo in 1977.