Bronx Zoo Elephant Is Not a Person Says New York’s Highest Court

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Ordinarily it wouldn’t take a court, much less the highest court, to tell someone that an elephant isn’t a person. It is pretty clear on its face. In any event, New York’s highest court just had to do just that.

Four years ago the group Nonhuman Rights Project began trying to free an elephant who lives at the Bronx Zoo and goes by the name Happy. The mechanism by which the group chose to obtain Happy’s freedom was to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the court, reports Fox News.

According to Cornell Law School, “[a] writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (e.g. institutionalized mental patient) before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful. A habeas petition proceeds as a civil action against the State agent (usually a warden) who holds the defendant in custody.”

As is clear, only a “person” has the right to bring a writ of habeas corpus before a court. But the Nonhuman Rights Project decided to try it anyway. They were not successful.

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The New York Court of Appeals recently issued a “5-2 decision in Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project v. Breheny, affirming the lower court’s ruling that Happy the Bronx Zoo elephant is not a legal person and therefore her captivity at the zoo is lawful,” reports Fox News. The Court said, “For centuries, the common law writ of habeas corpus has safeguarded the liberty rights of human beings by providing a means to secure release from illegal custody. The question before us on this appeal is whether petitioner Nonhuman Rights Project may seek habeas corpus relief on behalf of Happy, an elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo, in order to secure her transfer to an elephant sanctuary.”

The Court continued, “Because the writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement, it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a ‘person’ subjected to illegal detention. Thus, while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, the courts below properly granted the motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we therefore affirm.”

At least one elephant sanctuary did not support the Nonhuman Rights Project’s actions. “The Bronx Zoo is a well-respected and fellow-accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA),” said Elephant Sanctuary, the country’s largest refuge for elephants. “The Elephant Sanctuary is not affiliated with the Nonhuman Rights Project’s ‘Free Happy’ movement and has requested that The Sanctuary not be referenced in the Project’s ongoing campaign.”

For its part, the Bronx Zoo issued this statement about Happy and her care while at the zoo: “All decisions regarding the health and welfare of the animals at the Bronx Zoo will continue to be made by our animal care experts who know them best. At this time, the veterinarians, keepers and curators at the Bronx Zoo believe it is best for Happy to remain in familiar surroundings with the people she knows, relies on and trusts. We continually assess Happy’s situation and will make decisions based on what is best for her as an individual.”

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It is true, not one, but two New York Supreme Court judges determined that an elephant is a person. Of course, we all want animals to be happy and well cared for, but to argue that an elephant and a person are equivalent is quite a slippery slope. What do you think about the Court’s decision?

Stacey Warner

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