An article recently caught my eye. Why? The article was about an elephant named Happy and Happy’s unhappy day in court. I have an affinity for elephants… especially one who is named after one of Snow White’s dwarfs. And the elephant had a legal issue to be addressed by the highest court in New York. You don’t see that every day. So, when you put the two together, an elephant and the law, it was definitely an article I wanted to read.
Before I explain Happy’s legal case (which, it turns out is a very important case), I should first tell you about Happy.
Who is Happy the Elephant?
Happy is an Asian elephant who lives at the Bronx Zoo. Born in Thailand in the 70s, she is now in her early fifties. She has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. Nearly half of that time, Happy has lived a solitary life in a one-acre enclosure without the company of another elephant. Because elephants, like humans, are social animals. I am not sure Happy’s name is all that fitting.
When Happy was very young, just a baby really, she was captured, separated from her mother and the rest of her family, and brought to the United States. Her first stop in the United States was at a Florida petting zoo. She was placed along with six other elephants, each named after one of the seven dwarfs. Happy lived in a pen with cement floors where visitors could pet the young elephants.
In 1974, the owner of the petting zoo sold five of the seven young elephants to different zoos and circuses across the country. Happy and her best buddy, Grumpy, were not sold. Instead, they were moved to Lion Country Safari in Grand Prairie, Texas. Happy and Grumpy remained there until 1977, when the Bronx Zoo bought the pair.
Off To The Bronx
In the early days of Happy’s time at the Bronx Zoo, Happy and Grumpy entertained visitors to the zoo. Giving rides to children and performing tricks, Happy and Grumpy lived together in the zoo’s Elephant House. In 1985, the zoo moved Happy and Grumpy to an exhibit named “Wild Asia.” To me, Wild Asia is a bit of a misnomer, as the name brings to my mind a large exhibit allowing the elephants to roam wild. In reality, it is the one-acre compound where she currently lives.
Happy and Grumpy lived together in the Wild Asia exhibit for 17 years. Sadly, in 2002, two other elephants in the Wild Asia exhibit, Patty and Maxine, attacked Grumpy. Her injuries were so serious the zoo had to euthanize her. Because Patty and Maxine killed her companion, they separated Happy from the other two elephants. Elephants like companionship and the Bronx Zoo found Happy a new elephant companion, Sammy. She lived with Happy until 2005, when she was euthanized after suffering kidney failure.
This was an important year for Happy. During that time, Happy became the first elephant to pass the mirror self-recognition test. The mirror self-recognition test is used as an indicator of self-awareness, which is linked to the ability to feel empathy. Humans can pass the test around the age of two. Before Happy passed the test, the only other non-humans that had passed the test were great apes (chimpanzees and bonobos) and dolphins.
Since 2005, Happy has lived alone. Patty, one of the elephants who attacked Grumpy, is still alive and remains at the zoo. However, Happy and Patty do not get along and live in separate enclosures. Her solitary existence is why Happy ended up in court.
Happy the Elephant Goes to Court
Since 2018, Happy has been involved in what has been called the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century. In 2018, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed in a New York trial court a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus. The petition asked the court to review Happy’s predicament and to require the Bronx Zoo release Happy to an elephant sanctuary.
NhRP’s petition may sound straight forward. But there was a small legal hoop that Happy had to jump through first. The court had to recognize Happy as a person. Habeas corpus applies only to a “person.” It may seem clear that an elephant is not a person. But in law, a “person” is something of a legal fiction. For example, a corporation can be a person. A ship can also be a person. The Klamath River has been declared to be a person by the Yurok tribe in California. So why not an elephant?
Before I explain more about Happy’s petition for freedom, I should give a short explanation of habeas corpus. Habeas Corpus is the legal tool a person may use to challenge their imprisonment. It is based on the belief that people should be free from fear of being illegally detained or imprisoned.
When Is A Person Not A Person?
Back to Happy’s case. To gain Happy’s freedom and transfer her to an elephant sanctuary, NhRP asked the trial court to recognize Happy as a person for purposes of habeas corpus. In February 2020, the trial court made its ruling: an elephant cannot have legal personhood. The court’s decision denied Happy her chance to gain freedom from a solitary existence. In her ruling, Justice Alison Tuitt stated she had come to her opinion regrettably, but was bound by legal precedent. She referred was an New York appellate court decision in an earlier habeas corpus case filed by NhRP on behalf of two chimpanzees.
I found a couple of things interesting about the trial court proceedings. First, it seems clear to me Justice Tuitt’s decision was not made lightly. She heard over 12 hours of legal arguments in 3 separate hearings on the matter. Second, even though she denied the writ for habeas corpus, her decision was supportive of the legal arguments made on behalf of Happy. Justice Tuitt wrote in her opinion that Happy “is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”
After the trial court denied Happy’s petition for writ of habeas corpus, NhRP filed an appeal with the intermediate appellate court in New York, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department.
Happy Gains Support
Happy and her legal case gained a lot of attention. Lawyers, philosophers, and animal behaviorists got involved in her case by filing amicus briefs. An amicus brief is a legal document filed in an appeals case to help the court by supplying relevant information or arguments. Twelve philosophers submitted amicus briefs in support of Happy’s legal personhood and right to liberty. They had expertise in animal ethics, animal political theory, and the philosophy of animal cognition and behavior . Two legal scholars expert in the area of habeas corpus also filed an amicus brief supporting Happy.
“One of the greatest blemishes on our justice system is the wrongful detention of persons. The Writ of Habeas Corpus is one of the tools available to correct injustices by requiring a person’s captors to justify the person’s imprisonment to the courts. While the Writ has provided a procedural vehicle for vindicating the right of thousands of humans to not be unlawfully detained, this brief argues that the time has come to consider the Writ’s application to other cognitively complex beings who are unjustly detained. The non-humans at issue are unquestionably innocent. Their confinement, at least in some cases, is uniquely depraved—and their sentience and cognitive functioning, and the cognitive harm resulting from this imprisonment, is similar to that of human beings.”
Although many amicus briefs were filed in support of Happy, the intermediate appellate court also denied Happy the right to use habeas corpus.
A Historic Moment – The Court of Appeals Agrees to Review Happy’s Case
On January 27, 2021, NhRP filed with the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in New York state) a motion to appeal. As the highest court in New York, the Court of Appeals was not required to review Happy’s case. At least two of the seven judges on the Court of Appeals must vote in favor of an appeal. The Court of Appeals hears only about five-percent of the cases that make a request for an appeal.
In May 2021, the Court of Appeals granted NhRP’s motion to appeal. This was huge! It marked the first time in history that the highest court of a United States jurisdiction agreed to hear a habeas corpus case brought on behalf of someone other than a human being.
The Arguments Continue
On May 18, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Happy the elephant’s case. You can watch the hearing by clicking here. The lawyers for NhRP and Happy argued the court should recognize Happy as a legal person. This would allow her to use habeas corpus to seek her freedom and be released to a sanctuary to spend the rest of her days. The main argument made by lawyers on behalf of the Bronx Zoo was Happy was not being detained illegally. They also argued humans would lose control over animals of all kinds if the court granted legal personhood to a non-human animal.
At the hearing, the judges focused their questions on how autonomy is defined for animals. They then examined the meaning of bodily liberty in Happy’s instance. Finally, they explored the implications of a ruling which allowed an elephant legal “personhood” for purposes of habeas corpus. One of the questions asked by a judge to the lawyer for NhRP: “Does that mean I couldn’t keep a dog?” “I mean, dogs can memorize words.” The lawyer answered NhRP’s arguments for giving Happy legal personhood and her liberty did not apply to dogs.
The Court of Appeals Decision – Happy is Not a Person
The New York Court of Appeals issued its ruling in Happy’s case on June 14, 2022. Its decision: Happy is not a person and cannot use habeas corpus as a tool for her release. Of the seven judges on the Court of Appeals, five voted that Happy was not a person and denied her the right to seek her freedom through habeas corpus. Two judges on the court disagreed and thought Happy should be allowed legal personhood.
If you believe this was a simple decision based on the fact Happy is obviously not a person, I think you might be surprised at the length of the Court’s majority opinion. The majority’s opinion written by Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, is 17 pages in length. Judge DiFiore wrote in her opinion:
“While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf.” Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully retrained, not nonhuman animals.
Two of the judges on the Court of Appeals, Judge Rowan Wilson and Judge Jenny Rivera, wrote separate dissenting opinions.
Judge Rowan Wilson wrote: “We should recognize Happy’s right to petition for her liberty not just because she is a wild animal who is not meant to be caged and displayed, but because the rights we confer on others define who we are as a society,”
Judge Jenny Rivera wrote in a separate dissenting opinion: “The law has a mechanism to challenge this inherently harmful confinement, and Happy should not be denied the opportunity to pursue and obtain appropriate relief by writ of habeas corpus.”
If you would like to read the Court of Appeal’s opinion and the two dissenting opinions, click here.
I realize this post is a bit longer than what I usually write. But I thought Happy deserved our attention. I realize that an elephant in a courtroom makes for a funny headline. But the ethical and legal questions raised by her case are important for us to think about and discuss.
Dr. Robin E. Clark
Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Law