Happy Days? The Bronx Zoo’s star attraction is a tough case for Court of Appeals and court of public opinion

Happy 8 – credit Gigi Glendinning – Oct 2021
(Un)Happy the Elephant? Depending on who you ask the Bronx Zoo’s Asian Elephant and her stay in captivity has drawn legal challenges and ethical questions.
Photo Gigi Glendenning

On May 18, the New York Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the basis of 8,500-pound Happy the Elephant’s stay in the Bronx Zoo, which marks the first time in history that the highest court of any English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a habeas corpus brought on behalf of someone other than a human.

It’s a court hearing and potential landmark case that Happy’s legal team The Non-Human Rights Campaign says could set a precedent for the future of animal rights and those held in solitary and captive confinements.

Happy is a “cognitively complex nonhuman animal” that should be freed from the Bronx Zoo and transferred to a sanctuary, The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) told the Bronx Times. Happy was the first elephant to pass a mirror self-recognition test, according to NhRP.

But the court of public opinion on the Asian elephant housed in a 1.15-acre exhibit within Bronx Park is mixed.

Danay Raymond waited two long pandemic years to make a trip with her three kids to the Bronx Zoo, with the intention of hopping aboard the Wild Asia Monorail to see the Asian elephant exhibit that mimics scenes of the wild in the Bronx Zoo.

“My kids love elephants. They have elephants backpacks, elephants stickers all over the house, so they’re really excited to see him,” the 34-year-old single mother from Soundview told the Times. “It’s hard for me to deny them that, even if I know there is some controversy surrounding his time at the Zoo.”

Raymond, like many other zoo patrons, including Washington Heights residents Jessica Reyes and her husband Michael, flocked to the monorail, which reopened on Saturday, April 30, to see Happy and another elephant Patty. NhRP says the two are used rotationally and don’t share an enclosure due to interpersonal conflict. After housing a number of elephants over the years, there are just those two left.

On that same Saturday, a protest calling for Happy’s release to an animal sanctuary took place outside the Bronx Zoo’s main gates.

On April 30, protestors flocked to the main gate of the Bronx Zoo demanding the release of the zoo’s star attraction Happy the Elephant. Photo Lukas Greyson

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages four New York City wildlife parks in addition to the Bronx Zoo, has never faced charges of abuse against their elephants. The conservation society did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Controversy, however, surrounds the perceived unhappiness of the zoo’s star attraction, as she’s been in isolated captivity for 16 years.

Happy was caught in the wild in 1971 and sold for $800 to a defunct California-based Zoo. In 1977, proprietors relocated Happy and five other elephants to circuses and zoos across the U.S., with Happy and another elephant, Grumpy, sent to the Bronx Zoo to be part of the then newly created Wild Asia Monorail exhibit.

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.

“If Happy was in a sanctuary among other animals, she would be a matriarch and she would be thriving among a herd because elephants are social animals,” said Elizabeth Stein, Happy’s New York counsel and NhRP attorney. “We’re seeing a shadow of what an elephant is. This is not an elephant behaving as an elephant could or an elephant should if she was in the wild and at a sanctuary.”

The road for Happy’s legal team to get a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the elephant has been a process that’s taken six years in various courtrooms, NhRP’s legal team told the Times.

A writ of habeas corpus orders the custodian of an individual in custody to produce the individual before the court to make an inquiry concerning his or her detention. In New York state, a writ of habeas corpus may be obtained by any “person” who has been illegally detained, oftentimes in the Bronx on behalf of prisoners on Rikers Island.

Happy the Elephant. Photo Gigi Glendenning

NhRP contends if a judge grants the petition to move Happy from the zoo to a sanctuary, in the eyes of the law, she would be a person and have rights.

On Feb. 18, 2020, NhRP lost their case when the judge ruled that Happy is not a person and not illegally imprisoned. Subsequent appeals on July 10, 2020, and Dec. 17, 2020, also failed.

However, in those rulings, judges lent credibility to NhRP’s battle and their argument of Happy’s right to fair treatment.

While Bronx County Justice Allison Tuitt “regretfully” denied the habeas corpus in February 2020, she did not agree with Bronx Zoo’s claim that its continued imprisonment of Happy is good for her, writing that Happy “is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”

NhRP said they felt further “vindicated” on May 4, 2021, when the highest court in New York, the court of appeals, agreed to hear the case.

But detraction among New York’s agricultural industry has since ramped up.

The New York Farm Bureau, New York Dairy Association, and Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance have all filed a brief in support of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo, and state in their arguments that extending the writ of habeas corpus to nonhuman animals will devastate the agricultural industry.

Others skeptical of NhRP’s legal fight have cited Pepperdine law scholar Richard L. Cupp Jr.’s amicus brief which stated “whether Happy stays with the Wildlife Conservation Society or is moved to a different location should be a matter of human responsibility … not a matter of pretending that Happy is a person.” Cupp’s brief warns that granting personhood to one elephant would flood the courts with similar appeals for other animals and for broader rights.

The legacy and implications of this case is profound, with The Atlantic calling it “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st Century” and The New Yorker adding this case “to redefine personhood is raising profound questions.” Nonhuman Rights Project founder Steven Wise and animal rights advocates say they may not live to see how impactful — if they secure Happy’s release — the court’s ruling could be for the future of other animals in captivity.

And citing black marks in the Bronx Zoo’s history, including placing an African man on display in a monkey house in 1906, Wise said that the captivity of animals is a human issue.

“In 1906, (the Bronx Zoo) essentially treated a Black man like they do an elephant at an exhibit and the argument they made back then, are the arguments they make now to keep Happy in captivity,” said Wise. “The Bronx is just a terrible brutal way of keeping an elephant. To keep an elephant in just one acre of space for public profit or appeal is not how we should treat any living being.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society did issue an apology in 2020, 114 years later, over the matter.

As for zoogoers, the ethical concerns of captivity brush against the desire to see larger-than-life-animals, an experience that few institutions such as the Bronx Zoo, the state’s highest-accredited zoo, provide.

“There’s a part of me that does see a lonely animal that could probably do better than be housed in the Bronx, nowhere near its natural and social habitat,” said Casey Zilmer, a sophomore animal studies major at NYU. “But something about zoos, from their magnificence in exhibits and the animals you can see, I think it’s hard to break that pattern of behavior and see them as anything (more) than just an animal for their viewing pleasure.”

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

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