On Wednesday, the New York Court of Appeals heard arguments on both sides for Happy’s release from the zoo. The court will likely issue a decision in the next four to six weeks, representatives of both the NhRP and Bronx Zoo told CNN.
The NhRP’s legal argument revolves around the idea of habeas corpus, which protects against unlawful imprisonment. They argue that at the Bronx Zoo, Happy is kept in the equivalent of solitary confinement, which they say is particularly cruel given that elephants are highly social creatures roaming huge swaths of territory in the wild.
“It’s the nature of the detention and the nature of the species” that make Happy’s conditions a violation of habeas corpus, Monica Miller, a lawyer with the NhRP, told CNN.
Happy, born in the wild in 1971, is one of two Asian elephants currently kept at the zoo, which are kept in separate but adjacent enclosures and are able to smell, see, and touch each other with their trunks through the fence. The organization is pushing for Happy to be moved to an elephant sanctuary, where they say she would have more space, like she would in the wild, and have social contact with other elephants.
“Holding [elephants] captive and confined prevents them from engaging in normal, autonomous behavior and can result in the development of arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteomyelitis, boredom and stereotypical behavior, “elephant researcher Joyce Poole said in the organization’s petition.” Held in isolation elephants become bored, depressed , aggressive, catatonic and fail to thrive. “
The NhRP has called for Happy to be released to either the The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California. Neither group is affiliated with the NhRP.
Moreover, Happy and the other animals on whose behalf the NhRP has sued, did not ask for the NhRP’s legal representation, the Bronx Zoo says. And she does not need it.
And the case also has broader legal implications, the zoo argues. Habeas corpus has never been applied to nonhuman animals in New York, says the zoo, and doing so would open the door to legal chaos and add greater strain on the state’s court systems.
“Changing this most fundamental of legal concepts has implications not just for zoos, but for pet owners, farmers, academic and hospital-based researchers and, most critically, every human who might seek or need access to the judicial system,” the zoo wrote .
But Miller, one of NhRP’s lawyers, says the group is pushing for a much more narrow ruling. Currently, she said, the legal world has “no room for distinction between elephant and caterpillar. Right now, Happy has the same rights as an ant.”
Miller said Happy “is more like a human for the purpose of right to bodily liberty,” noting the ruling would not necessarily open the floodgates to other animals like dogs or livestock gaining human rights. According to the NhRP, elephants “share numerous complex cognitive abilities with humans, such as self-awareness, empathy, awareness of death, intentional communication, learning, memory, and categorization abilities,” which makes them uniquely deserving of the right to habeas corpus .
The case also builds on the legal history of habeas corpus. Historically, habeas corpus was used to free enslaved people in England and the United States, even during times when slaves did not have legal personhood. So, the organization argues, there is precedent for using habeas corpus to grant freedom to those without legal personhood, like elephants.
“At the Bronx Zoo, we are focused on what is best for Happy, not in general terms, but as an individual with a unique and distinct personality,” the zoo said in its statement.