Animal rights nonprofit and Bronx Zoo organization continue the fight for Happy the elephant

The legal battle over the rights of Happy the elephant continued.
Photo courtesy of Gigi Glendinning

The battle for Happy the elephant’s animal rights continued last month when the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) and attorneys for the Wildlife Conservation Society presented oral arguments to three appellate judges.

In February a judge ruled that Happy was not a person nor is she imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo, which led to the Nov. 19 appeal. In November, the exhibit closed for the winter, which left Happy confined to an industrial cement structure lined with windowless, barred cages. According to the zoo, the “elephant barn” will reopen in May 2021.

Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo and executive vice president of Zoos and Aquarium at the Wildlife Conservation Society supported the judge’s decision in February.

“The court rejected NhRP’s ill-conceived attempt to have an elephant at the Bronx Zoo, Happy, declared a “person,” entitled to protection under the writ of habeas corpus,” Breheny, said in February. “In doing so, the court supported the Bronx Zoo’s legal position and we believe this decision is in Happy’s best interests.”

Following the hearing, the NhRP expects to hear from the court in six to eight weeks. If the decision is not favorable, the nonprofit will ask New York’s Court of Appeals to hear its further appeal.

While Nonhuman Rights Project Founder and President Steven Wise and New York legal Counsel Elizabeth Stein, only had six minutes to speak, Wise told the Bronx Times he hoped that short time made an impact.

“We were really hoping to win because Happy has been imprisoned in a very small place for than 40 years,” Wise said. “Her life is being destroyed.”

Wise said that he felt good heading into the hearing because there are concrete examples showing Happy’s independence, which other judges have also supported.

Happy’s proof of autonomy was evident in 2005, when she became the first elephant to “pass” the mirror self-recognition test, considered to be an indicator of self-awareness. The mirror test is a behavioral technique developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. as an attempt to determine whether an animal possesses the ability of visual self-recognition.

“The only way to have the life of an elephant is to have her moved to a sanctuary,” he stressed. “Anyone that cares about elephants would not want to see her live like this.”

In a Daily News opinion piece, world-renowned elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole wrote in support of Happy’s right to a better life. Poole said that she had submitted three affidavits on Happy’s behalf asking that she be released to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or California’s Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary (PAWS).

“Simply put, the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit is too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant. Happy deserves to live the rest of her life at [a sanctuary] where the utmost care will be given to her individual needs and she’ll have the space and conditions needed to heal and to form psychologically necessary bonds with other elephants.”

Happy was born in Malaysia in 1971 and spent a few years in California before being relocated to the Bronx Zoo in 1977. She has lived with three other elephants over the course of her time at the zoo but has lived alone for the past 17 years.

The 49-year-old elephant currently resides on an acre of land at the zoo, but if relocated to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, she would have access to 2,600 acres of land along with 10 to 15 other elephants.

The NhRP began fighting for Happy back in September 2019.

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