The groundbreaking legal fight to free Happy the lonely elephant by granting her the same rights as a person

elephant Happy human rights

Animal rights activists are hoping New York’s highest court can finally grant freedom to Happy, the female Asian elephant who has been held in captivity in the Bronx Zoo most of her life. 

The pursuit of Happy’s happiness: Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the animal rights group leading the fight for Happy’s freedom, is relying on the New York Court of Appeals to recognize the elephant’s “personhood” in a last-ditch effort to save her, reported Time.

  • Happy is believed to have been taken from her family in Asia as a baby in the early 1970s, according to the NhRP website.
  • The baby elephant was brought to the U.S. along with other calves all named after the dwarves in Disney’s “Snow White.”
  • Held initially in California and Florida, she was transferred to the Bronx Zoo along with the elephant named Grumpy in 1977.
  • The Bronx Zoo euthanized Grumpy in 2002 after she sustained injuries from two other elephants. A younger female Asian elephant named Sammie was then introduced as Happy’s companion.
  • In 2005, Happy made history when he indicated self-awareness after becoming the first elephant to “pass” the mirror self-recognition test. Sammie was euthanized that same year after suffering kidney failure.
  • Happy currently lives in a one-to-two-acre area where she is exhibited to visitors, who are granted “unlimited rides” for $40.
  • Another female Asian elephant named Patty shares the enclosure with a fence separating them because they reportedly do not get along.
  • So far, over 1.4 million people have signed the petition on Change.org to convince the zoo to transfer Happy to a sanctuary instead.
  • The zoo has claimed that Happy is being cared for by professionals and not languishing as she has “contact with another elephant.”

Seeing Happy as a person: In its bid to move Happy to an elephant sanctuary either in Tennessee or California, NhRP first filed its habeas corpus petition (legal protection for imprisoned people) on behalf of Happy in 2018. The Bronx Supreme Court rejected the petition in December 2020.

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  • NhRP has since raised the case to the New York Court of Appeals, asking it to recognize Happy’s common law right to bodily liberty, reverse the lower court’s dismissal of Happy’s habeas petition, and remand the case with instructions to order Happy’s release to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
  • In its appellate brief, NhRP wrote: “This Court has the duty to safeguard and uphold the fundamental common law liberty interest of autonomous beings. As Happy is an autonomous being, this Court must recognize her right to bodily liberty protected by habeas corpus and order her freed.”
  • When the New York Court of Appeals hears the case in 2022, NhRP lawyers will present the first argument ever to extend such protections guaranteed by habeas corpus to an animal.
  • Elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole has expressed support to Happy’s case: “Simply put, the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit is too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant. Happy deserves to live the rest of her life at [a sanctuary] where the utmost care will be given to her individual needs and she’ll have the space and conditions needed to heal and to form psychologically necessary bonds with other elephants.”
  • According to the NhRP, a victory for Happy is just the beginning as they would continue seeking an end to all elephant exhibits in zoos across the country.

In the wild, elephants have been observed to grieve and help one another, indicating their capacity for empathy. The fate of Happy and many elephants in captivity now rests on humans’ faculty for compassion.

Featured Image via PIX11 News

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