Activists say an elephant at the Bronx Zoo is self-aware and shouldn't live in a 'one-acre prison.' A New York court just ruled she isn't a legal person.

an elephant peers through a gate in captivity
Happy the elephant was captured from the wild in 1977 and has been living in the Bronx Zoo since 1977. She's seen here on October 2, 2018.AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
  • The New York Court of Appeals ruled that Happy the elephant at the Bronx Zoo is not a legal person.

  • Attorneys said the zoo's 265 acres are less than 1% of the space she would cover in a day in the wild.

  • "This was a very difficult legal case, for both the elephant and the humans involved," an expert said.

Since 1977, Happy the elephant has lived in a one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. But a New York state court ruling has halted a year-long legal effort to address the elephant in the room — whether Happy is, well, happy.

In a 5-2 decision, New York Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit filed on behalf of the 51-year-old elephant from the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights advocacy group, to get her re-homed to an elephant sanctuary.

Happy is "a nonhuman animal who is not a 'person' subjected to illegal detention," the court's ruling said.

"No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion," the court wrote, but "nothing in our precedent or, in fact, that of any other state or federal court, provides support for the notion that the writ of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to nonhuman animals."

"This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in a Bronx Zoo exhibit," the group said in a statement after the decision. "It's also a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice–autonomy, liberty, equality, and fairness–and ensuring our legal system is free of arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied basic rights simply because of who they are."

The Bronx Zoo did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

The elephant in the courtroom

Habeas corpus rights provide a way for people to challenge illegal confinement. Notably, other non-human entities like corporations have already been granted legal personhood by the courts, allowing them to do some things only a legal person can.

Attorneys from the Nonhuman Rights Project said that Happy lives in a "one-acre prison" and that the Bronx Zoo's entire 265 acres are less than 1% of the space the elephant would typically cover in a day in the wild.

"She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with, and where to go, and what to do, and what to eat," project attorney Monica Miller told the Associated Press in May. "The zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself."

Meanwhile, zoo operators opposed moving, saying in a public statement in May that she is cared for and that the Nonhuman Rights Project "is using Happy the same way they have used animals in other cases in their effort to upend centuries of habeas corpus law and impose their own world view that animals should not be in zoos."

Patty, an elephant who lived with the Bronx Zoo's other remaining elephant Happy until they were separated, in October 2019.
Patty, an elephant who lived with the Bronx Zoo's other remaining elephant Happy until they were separated, in October 2019.Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Trunk in the mirror

Happy's legal team argued that elephants like her are remarkably intelligent animals and should therefore be able to sue under habeas corpus rights.

Lawyers pointed to cognitive tests from 2005 that showed elephants — just like humans — can recognize themselves. Then 34 years old, Happy gazed into an 8-by-8-foot mirror and repeatedly used her trunk to touch an "X" painted above her eye.

"As a graduate student, I studied Happy's ability to recognize herself in a mirror 17 years ago, and am grateful for the attention the work has brought to elephant welfare and conservation efforts," Joshua Plotnik, now an assistant professor of psychology and elephant behavior researcher at CUNY's Hunter College, told Insider.

"I think it is crucially important, whenever considering the welfare of elephants living in captivity, that the individual elephant — her personality, her experiences, her relationships with other elephants and with the humans that care for her — must be considered paramount," Plotnik added.

While he has not worked with Happy since then and now spends much of his time studying wild elephants in Thailand, he added that he has "always felt that this was a very difficult legal case, for both the elephant and the humans involved."

In a dissent to Tuesday's majority ruling, Judge Jenny Rivera said that Happy "is an autonomous, if not physically free, being. The law has a mechanism to challenge this inherently harmful confinement."

"A gilded cage is still a cage," Rivera added. "Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity."

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