The National Sea Grant Law Center


  • Court Says Happy the Elephant is Not a Person

  • August 4th, 2022 — by Kennady Hertz — Category: Miscellaneous

  • Happy, a female Asian elephant born in 1971, recently became a major subject of debate for what species should have legal personhood. On May 18, 2022, an advocacy group argued for Happy’s personhood in front of the New York State Court of Appeals - the highest court an animal rights case has reached in New York. In June, the Court ruled 5-2 against the advocacy group’s argument, stating that there is no precedent that supports habeas corpus applying to non-human animals.

    Happy, dubbed “the Bronx Zoo’s loneliest elephant,” has gained the attention of many activist groups. She has lived alone, without another elephant companion, since 2006 in a 1.15 acre “Wild Asia” exhibit. Elephants are social creatures, who love to play and communicate with each other through low vibration rumblings as well as touch. In 2005, Happy became the first elephant ever to pass the mirror self-recognition test, something only humans, apes, and dolphins had accomplished before. Many animal advocacy groups have condemned Happy living by herself - stating it is cruel and unlawful for her to be alone. A petition for an end to Happy’s solitary confinement has gained over 1.4 million signatures. Zoo officials claim that Happy is well cared for and not isolated.

    In 2018, the Nonhuman Rights Advocacy Group filed a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus in the New York Supreme Court, demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood. Habeas corpus is typically used to protect humans from unlawful confinement. A writ of habeas corpus is a court order directing the custodian of an individual in custody to bring the person before the court and provide valid grounds for their detention. The advocacy group argued that since Happy is an intelligent being, she should be able to seek habeas corpus relief against illegal and unjust confinement. The advocacy group petitioned for Happy to be able to assert the right to bodily liberty and be released to an elephant sanctuary. The Wildlife Conservation Society (which oversees the Bronx Zoo) rejected the Nonhuman Rights Project’s claim that Happy is subject to illegal and unjust confinement.

    In issuing the court opinion denying habeas corpus relief, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore specified, “[h]abeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.” In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rowan Wilson wrote “[w]hether an elephant (or other animal) is a ‘person’ is not relevant to determining whether the writ of habeas corpus can be used to challenge a confinement.” Judge Wilson’s reason for dissent supports the Nonhuman Rights Advocacy Group’s position: while an elephant is not a human, it is still entitled to a life of respect and dignity and therefore should be granted legal personhood to ensure that.

    The case of Happy the elephant begs the question: should highly intelligent animals be viewed as legal persons? In the United States, corporations have been recognized as legal persons. All around the world, ecosystems, bodies of water, and even other non-human animals have been recognized as legal persons. As technology advances, ethical questions will continue to arise about what non-human entities should be deemed legal persons. Happy’s case is likely one of many that will develop for determining legal personhood.

  • Kennady Hertz
    NSGLC Research Associate

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