New York court to decide whether elephants have human rights

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state’s highest court is charged with deciding whether an elephant should be granted human rights, as a lawyer representing an animal rights group pushes to have Happy the elephant freed from the Bronx Zoo.

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Happy, an Asian elephant, has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. Animal rights advocates at the Nonhuman Rights Project argue in a lawsuit that Happy is autonomous, cognitively complex and worthy of rights reserved under law for “a person,” The Associated Press reported.

“What we’re saying is that she has a right to bodily liberty and that makes her no longer a thing,” Steven Wise, president of the NRP, told The Washington Post. “She’s a person.”

Happy, who is 51, has lived at the Bronx Zoo since 1977, but has been kept apart from other elephants in a 1-acre enclosure since 2006, Reuters reported. Happy was born in the wild in the early 1970s before she was captured and brought to the United States, the AP reported.

The Bronx Zoo said through an attorney that Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but that she is well-cared-for and “respected as the magnificent creature she is,” the AP reported.

Among the questions that judges asked during arguments Wednesday on the case were whether granting a female elephant some of the same rights as humans would mean that people could no longer keep dogs as pets, Reuters reported.

In response to the question of whether the law would then make owning dogs illegal, a lawyer for the NRP said that there is not as much evidence in support of dogs’ cognitive abilities as there is for elephants, Reuters reported.

The attorneys hired by the Nonhuman Rights Group assert that Happy passed a mirror self-recognition test in 2005, and argue that the animal is not happy in captivity, The Washington Post reported. The group has asked that Happy be moved to an elephant sanctuary where she would have more space and interaction with other elephants.

The Bronx Zoo has argued that Happy is, indeed, happy where she is. In a statement, the zoo said, “They are not ‘freeing’ Happy as they purport, but arbitrarily demanding that she be uprooted from her home and transferred to another facility where they would prefer to see her live. This demand is based on a philosophy and does not consider her behavior, history, personality, age and special needs.”

This is not the first time the NRP has tried to have human rights extended to other species. The group previously unsuccessfully that argued two chimpanzees owned by private owners were legally persons and should be moved to a sanctuary, The Washington Post reported.

Other groups have filed briefs with the courts arguing against the NRP, including the New York Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups, which said the “new-fangled theory of personhood” could potentially include pigs, cows and chickens, the AP reported. Multiple state and national associations representing veterinarians are also arguing against the NRP’s suit, saying it promotes animals’ personhood rights above animals’ welfare, the AP reported.