Bronx pols slam elephant captivity bill, citing impact to Bronx Zoo

In a statement to the Bronx Times, the Wildlife Conservation Society said the City Council bill to ban elephant captivity is just “another tactic” by the The Nonhuman Rights Group after legal attempts to get the zoo to release Happy the Elephant failed in the state Court of Appeals last summer.
Photo courtesy Gigi Glendinning

Brooklyn Councilmember Shahanah Hanif‘s bill proposing a citywide elephant captivity ban has drawn pushback from several Bronx politicos, including some of her colleagues on the City Council, who believe the legislation is unfairly targeting the Bronx Zoo and its two elephants Happy and Patty.

Hanif’s bill, which she announced at a Thursday press conference, would prohibit elephants to be kept or constrained in enclosures throughout the city unless certain conditions were met. The Bronx Zoo is the only zoo in New York City currently home to elephants.

The conditions outlined in the bill stipulates a legal elephant enclosure to include 15 acres per elephant, a cohabitation with other elephants and a habitat that can mimic the elephant’s natural surroundings. The bill would also prevent elephants in enclosures to be used for educational or commercial exhibits, and requires the owners of an elephant enclosure to have a permit and license to do so, which would be conditional based on meeting the aforementioned conditions set forth in the bill.

In a statement to the Bronx Times, the Wildlife Conservation Society — which owns and operates the Bronx Zoo — said the bill does not consider Happy and Patty as two distinct elephants with distinct personalities, and called it “another tactic” by the Nonhuman Rights Group (NhRP) after legal attempts to get the zoo to release Happy failed in the state Court of Appeals last summer.

“NhRP has harassed the Bronx Zoo for years with nuisance lawsuits in a failed attempt to force us to move the elephants. They have lost in every court ruling and are now looking for another tactic to advance an anti-zoo agenda,” the statement reads.  “This proposed bill is an obvious attempt to legislate their philosophy on elephants and infringe on the ability of the Bronx Zoo to make informed decisions for individual animals in our care based on intimate knowledge of those animals and their specific personalities and individual needs.”

Hanif, a Progressive who represents the Park Slope and Gowanus neighborhoods in the Council District 39, told the Bronx Times on Thursday that her bill is not meant as an attack on the Bronx Zoo, but instead, to heighten the quality of Happy and Patty’s life.

City Council bill to ban elephant captivity in NYC puts focus on Bronx Zoo’s Happy and Patty

“I love the Bronx Zoo, I’ve been to the Bronx Zoo many times and have enjoyed the amazing work that they do, particularly in their conservation efforts,” said Hanif. “But elephants are meant to roam free in open land, they are meant to be with herds. They aren’t meant to be put up for public display or placed in limited and isolated conditions.”

Hanif noted that her bill builds off another piece of legislation in 2017 when the city banned the use of wild and exotic animals like elephants, lions and tigers in circus acts.

Studies suggest the same deleterious effects that social isolation has on the human brain — such as the mental health impact heightened during the pandemic — also effects elephants. And cramped conditions can cause arthritis or other skin problems, animal advocates say.

Bronx politicos from Borough President Vanessa Gibson to a slew of NYC councilmembers have come out against the proposed elephant captivity ban. File photo

Patty lives in an adjacent enclosure separated from Happy by a fence, as the two do not get along, according to the zoo.

The Bronx Zoo is the borough’s defining tourist hub with 2 million visitors flocking to the zoo annually, according to a 2022 tourism report from the state comptroller.

Hours after Thursday’s press conference, fellow city councilmembers Rafael Salamanca Jr. and Marjorie Velazquez, who both represent Bronx districts, took to Twitter to denounce the bill, implying that it is a distraction from other issues such as housing and food insecurity.

“At a time when New Yorkers are struggling to find affordable housing, pay their monthly bills, or helping a loved one through addiction issues, we are being asked to support legislation that seeks solutions to problems that don’t exist in banning elephants from zoos,” Salamanca tweeted Thursday.

The NhRP said that the Bronx Zoo would still be able to keep Happy if they abide by the parameters for enclosure, but those who oppose the bill cite the importance of maintaining local access to the elephants in the zoo.

Other Bronx politicos believe the Bronx Zoo is the appropriate place for the elephants, given the zoo’s work with rehabbing animals. Last month, when an emaciated alligator was pulled from a lake in Prospect Park and taken to Animal Care Centers of New York City, it was sent to be rehabbed at the zoo.

With change brewing in the Court of Appeals, Happy the Elephant’s case may live to see another day

“The Bronx Zoo is an important part of the borough and the world, where children and people of all ages can come and discover the wonders of the animal kingdom,” said Riverdale Councilmember Eric Dinowitz. “Beyond that, the Wildlife Conservation Society does critical conservation work, including right here in NYC with the alligator found in Prospect Park.

In 2006, the Bronx Zoo announced no further elephants would be acquired, a measure taken by other zoos after calls from the public and animal experts stated that elephants do not belong in captivity thus affecting their natural behaviors as social creatures.

Scant federal laws protect wild animals from captivity in aquariums, circuses, theme parks and zoos in the U.S. There is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), adopted in 1966, that protects warm-blooded animals who are bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or publicly for exhibition by animal carriers, handlers, dealers, breeders and exhibitors.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.