In a Legal First, a Court Will Decide if an Elephant Deserves the Same Rights as a Person
Happy stands just feet from the Bronx Zoo monorail on a September day. As she wraps her trunk around the fence, her ears twitch as she separates herself from the slow-moving train. There are no other barriers between them, not even plexiglass, so it’s no wonder why a child screeches in delight as the 51-year-old female Asian elephant comes into view. It is New York City’s only accredited zoo and one of just 57 in the city. In the U.S., you can see an Elephant. According to conservationists there are only approximately 50,000 Asian elephants remaining in the wild. The chances of seeing this endangered species diminish each year as it is subject to poaching and other threats.
But for plaintiffs in a landmark legal case to free Happy, there’s no marvel to be found below the monorail; there’s only misery to witness the half-life of an elephant—specifically one who has indicated to researchers that she’s Self-awarenessOnline. A website Petition shows that more than 1.4 million people believe Happy is languishing in isolation at the zoo, where she’s gawked at from May through October for the $40 price of adult admission with unlimited rides.
“It’s kind of like looking at a prisoner, and you get to ride over someone who’s in solitary confinement,” says Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), the animal-rights group leading the lawsuit. “We understand what her life means to her, which is almost nothing at all.”
Against the Bronx Zoo’s wishes, the NhRP wants to move Happy to an elephant sanctuary either in Tennessee or California, where there’s more space and opportunity to socialize. They are using the writ d’habeas corpus to do this, which provides legal protection for prisoners. The New York Court of Appeals will be hearing the first arguments ever brought up in this country by an animal.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India made waves in the animal rights world when it said that animals have protected rights under the nation’s constitution. As it banned a bull-fighting festival, the court said animals have the right to “live in a healthy and clean atmosphere” and “not to be beaten.” That same year, a court in Argentina reportedly ruled in a habeas corpus case that an orangutan named Sandra could be freed from a Buenos Aires zoo and moved to a sanctuary. Sandra was moved to the U.S. sanctuary even though it was later overturned.
Experts say Happy’s case is larger than any one pachyderm. It claims that if the NhRP wins, it will try to eliminate elephant exhibits from all zoos around the country. They believe their efforts will save complex animal lives and prevent them becoming stunted in captivity. Zoo managers warn this would cause serious problems for children in the future and threaten conservation efforts. Climate ChangeThis will wipe out more species from the earth.
“There would be a huge void to fill,” says Jodi Gibson, president of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, who still remembers the “overwhelming excitement” she felt seeing the Milwaukee County Zoo’s elephants for the first time when she was 6. “For me, as a child, it opened a door,” she says. “Our greatest hope is for people to want to protect and preserve these beautiful animals.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Extincted 23 species were included, as well as the ivory-billed Woodpecker. More species could be at risk from climate change or habitat loss. Many studies and surveys show that children spend more time online. Behind screensAnd Less time spent outdoorsS, meaning moments to connect with animals is an “increasing rarity,” says Dan Ashe, the president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the main accrediting body for U.S. wildlife associations. According to AZA, pre-pandemic more than 200million people visited AZA-accredited Zoos each year, which included more than 55 million children in schools. Ashe said that the zoos can reach people like no other organization in conservation and teach them how to look after animals.
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<strong>“Our greatest hope is for people to want to protect and preserve these beautiful animals.”</strong>Top experts around the globeElephants are known to help each other, which indicates a high level of empathy. They have also been seen grieving. Joyce Poole, an elephant researcher in Kenya says that she observed the baby elephant refusing to go with her stillborn calf two days ago. The mother’s ears and head hung low and her eyes were downcast as she stood vigil, occasionally prodding and trying to lift the dead infant. “I saw on her face what looked like grief to me,” says Poole, who has studied the species since 1975.
Happy revealed to scientists in 2005 that Happy had another trait that was not known about humans or other apes. She was the first Asian elephant to pass a mirror test, commonly used by scientists to gauge self-awareness through an animal’s ability to recognize itself. That’s one of the main reasons the NhRP launched a legal battle on her behalf in 2018. But it hasn’t been easy to persuade a court to grant an elephant human rights. When the case reached the Bronx County Supreme Court in 2020, the court said it was “extremely sympathetic to Happy’s plight” but that it was bound by legal precedent to find that Happy is not a person and not being illegally imprisoned. Happy received habeas corpus relief from an appellate court that same year. The NhRP appealed to the state’s highest court, which agreed to hear the case.
While it’s difficult to fully trace Happy’s history, the NhRP believes she was a baby when she was snatched from her family in Asia in the early 1970s and brought to the U.S. with several other calves—all named after Snow White’s dwarves. Since 1977 when Happy has been living in the USA with her mother. monorail first openedHappy is currently at Bronx Zoo. Happy lives in a corral of approximately one- to two-acres, which she shares with Patty (a female Asian elephant). The zoo declined to comment but has previously said that the two are separated by a fence because they’ve had issues getting along. The zoo’s most recent Statement in 2020, the zoo said Happy is “not languishing” and that she’s well cared for by professionals. By saying she has “contact with another elephant,” the zoo disputed claims that Happy is kept in isolation.
However, NhRP and elephant experts say contact through a fence isn’t enough to fulfill social needs, and that the elephants’ lives at the zoo don’t come close to the ones they’re capable of having. Poole states that elephants in the wild can travel 30 miles per day, along with their families. They’re animated, constantly touching and interacting with the families they’re born into, and autonomous. According to Wise who attends the zoo monthly, Happy is usually just standing still, and receives updates via video from his supporters, Happy rarely moves around. Experts say that’s stereotypical behavior for elephants in captivity.
“When you try and take an elephant and put it behind bars in an urban setting, it’s just a recipe for disaster,” Poole says. “As you can imagine if you were locked behind bars, there’s not much to do.”
Science is now a reality long way since the first modern zoo opened in London’s Regent’s Park in 1828. It is now clear that animals can have consciousness and emotions depending on species. Jays, crows and all other corvids use paper clips as tools to catch food. With eight limbs and central nervous systems, octopuses have been able to escape their tanks with cunning moves. Some states have changed their laws in response to the transformation of dogs from work animals to family pets over the course of the century. consider a pet’s well-being in divorce cases
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Researchers now understand that elephants thrive when there are social connections and the challenge to finding food. The journal published a 2016 study. PLOS OneSuggestions for elephants indicate that they have impaired cognitive states, and are unable to perform basic functions such as reproduction. A new protocol was approved by the AZA in 2011. Standard that required accredited U.S. zoos with elephants to ensure there’s room for three of them. According to AZA, three elephants were kept at the Bronx Zoo. Many other zoos weren’t and couldn’t afford costly upgrades. At least eleven AZA-accredited U.S. Zoos have closed their elephant exhibits since 2011. Most of the facilities moved their elephants to larger or sanctuaries. Two zoos eliminated their exhibits when their elephants died.
The Milwaukee County Zoo spent $16.6 million on massive expansions. In their new quarters, which opened in 2019, the zoo’s three African elephants—Brittany, Ruth and Belle—have a watering hole big enough to fully themselves submerge in, a self-activating shower, a recreation room with sand and padded floors and hay-filled barrels hanging from the ceiling, among other amenities. Gibson says it was crucial to evolve the exhibit, not just for the elephants but for the tens of thousands of toddlers and teenagers, particularly those who come from low-income families, who participate in the zoo’s free and educational conservation program.
“The opportunity to witness firsthand the animals that we have here is critically important because not everyone can go on a safari and have that experience out in the wild,” she says. “It’s not just reading it in a book.”
Ashe, president of AZA, concurs, saying that modern zoos have more relevance than ever. Ashe states that if there were no elephants in zoos anymore, children will grow up without any connection to them. This would mean many opportunities to turn sparks of curiosity into a career in conservation. “It’ll come at great cost” Ashe says.
For the last few years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—tasked with conducting unannounced inspections of all registered zoos—has not documented any egregious violations at the Bronx Zoo, according to a review by TIME of all publicly available routine inspection reports from 2014 to 2019. In that timeframe, the inspector only noted peeling walls in the mouse deer and fruit bat enclosures, some rust in the lion’s den, a water drainage issue in the babirusa’s space and overdue water-quality tests in the sea lions’ pool. In the last seven years, complaints that warranted specific welfare checks were about the zoo’s cheetahs in 2020 and the giraffes and lions in 2019. The complaints are unclear—and the Bronx Zoo did not comment—but the inspector did not find anything out of compliance during either check.
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Wise says that doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong. Popular culture has seen that paradigms continue to shift over recent years. That’s what partially inspired SeaWorld to End its killer-whale showThe company stated that the announcement was made in 2016. This announcement was made after the release of the documentary in 2013. BlackfishSeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales kept in captivity was criticized by. The revelations in the film quickly devastated attendance at its parks and prompted many to rethink whether such facilities have the animals’ best interest at heart. Recently, allegations were made against the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium in an article. Documentary. The AZA revoked the facility’s accreditation Oct. 6 due to financial mismanagement. It also claimed that the zoo had repeatedly traded baby animals (mostly big cats) with entertainment vendors. According to the zoo, it intends to appeal.
“It’s really obvious from an ethical and moral point of view that we should not, for the purpose of money, stick animals behind bars so we can go and see them,” says Canadian conservationist Reno Sommerhalder. “It’s just not right.”
The Bronx Zoo has criticsPeople who seek habeas corpus protections to protect an animal are degraded by the act of trying to apply them. John Blume of Cornell Law School says that the writ provides prisoners with the only chance to appeal against their convictions and sentences. He has represented prisoners in roughly 75 habeas case in lower courts and eight habeas corpus cases.
“It’s been one of the primary means over the last 500 years for people to challenge the legality of their continued detention,” Blume says.
But it’s also been used in novel ways to bring about social change that seemed unlikely hundreds of years ago, including the freeing of slaves, according to six habeas corpus practitioners and scholars who submitted amicus briefs to the New York appeals court in support of the NhRP. Although Happy isn’t a human being according to experts, it is an entity that is capable of emotions, cognition, and is kept in a confined environment and suffering. “It is because of the intense and concrete suffering associated with unjust imprisonment that habeas corpus developed in the first place,” they wrote. “If unjustly confined elephants suffer in the way a human would, the same remedy should protect elephants, too.”
For humans, habeas corpus is viewed as an extraordinary remedy, meaning people do not routinely prevail, says Blume, who has no ties to Happy’s case. According to an analysis, of the 917 habeas corpus cases that were not involving death penalty and issued between 2005-2009, only 154 petitioners received relief. AnalyseBlume, and other Cornell scholars. Blume was successful in arguing half the habeas corpus case before the Supreme Court.
But there’s no precedent in the U.S. for how an animal might fare, and Happy’s legal advocates say there’s not much time left to find out. Asian elephants live between 60 and 70 years. in the wild, and in captivity, it’s considerably shorter. Happy, at 51 years old, is older than any of the seven Elephants that have passed away in the Bronx Zoo’s Bronx Zoo.