New York Appeals Court Denies Personhood to Elephant in Animal Rights Case

The State of New York Court of Appeals issued an opinion on Tuesday that denied an elephant named Happy the right to bodily autonomy. The Nonhuman Rights Group, an animal-advocacy organization, sought habeas corpus relief on behalf of Happy. They argued that Happy was being illegally detained at the Bronx Zoo, where she has lived for years. The 5-to-2 vote ruled that Happy is not a person in a legal sense, meaning she does not possess fundamental human rights.

Nonhuman Rights argued that complex and cognitively advanced animals like elephants are entitled to the legal principle of habeas corpus, and that they should enjoy the human right to bodily autonomy and not be illegally confined. They also claimed that Happy was being illegally detained at the Bronx Zoo since she deserved the same liberty rights as humans, who cannot be unlawfully restrained.

A dissent written by Judge Jenny Rivera noted that the female elephant was being “held in an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life as she was meant to.” Judge Janet DiFiore, who wrote the majority opinion, explained that granting Happy bodily autonomy would “have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”

Judge DiFiore also wrote that “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. 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.”

An article written about the court ruling in the New York Times stated that the outcome of the case is “unlikely to quell the debate over whether highly intelligent animals should be viewed as something other than things or property.”

Despite the opinion, NRG said that the decision gave them “tremendous hope for a future where elephants no longer suffer as Happy has and where nonhuman rights are protected alongside human rights.” The NRG had moved for Happy to be relocated from the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, disagreed and asserted that Happy was well-cared for by trained professionals.