An elephant walking diagonal from the camera across a grassy plain.
Unsplash | David Clode

Elephant Deemed Not A Legal Person, Will Not Be Removed From Zoo

Zoos are often an incredible public resource that not only allows us to see amazing animals all over the world, but behind the scenes, zoos are often on the cutting edge when it comes to animal preservation, research, and conservation.

This seems to be less true when looking at the story of one particular elephant at the Bronx Zoo, who will have to remain in a solitary enclosure due to not being considered a person.

People are rallying together to free an elephant from a zoo.

An elephant looking towards the camera, a plain and some trees in the background.
Unsplash | Sam Balye

Since 1977, an Asian elephant named Happy has been staying at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Zoos are typically amazing facilities that do important work in the world of conservation, but animal activists believe this not to be the case when it comes to Happy, who's lived alone in a one-acre exhibit since 2006.

Elephants are highly social animals.

A group of elephants, three adults and two babies, walking together in a line across a plain.
Unsplash | Harshil Gudka

This means Happy is being deprived of a large social aspect of her life by being kept alone.

This inspired one woman named Joann Burrows to start a change.org petition calling for the end of Happy's solitary confinement and have her moved to an elephant sanctuary. This petition explains that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends elephants be kept in groups of three or more, something Happy never had the luxury of experiencing.

The petition has over 1.4 million signatures.

A photo of an empty courtroom.
Unsplash | Hansjörg Keller

Alongside this, there has been a massive online campaign calling for her freedom using the hashtag #FreeHappy. It's garnered so much attention that the issue was escalated to New York's Court of Appeals by the Nonhuman Rights Project.

They filed for a habeas corpus hearing, which regards any sort of illegal confinement.

One argument presented was that Happy displays self-awareness.

A red X painted on a white brick wall.
Unsplash | Andrej Lišakov

In 2005, a few studies involving Happy were conducted, namely one called a 'mirror test'. In this test, she was able to repeatedly touch an 'X' drawn on her forehead while looking in a mirror, meaning she recognized herself and understood that she was looking at a reflection.

This is a mark of her intelligence.

An elephant walking diagonal from the camera across a grassy plain.
Unsplash | David Clode

"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," said Monica Miller, the project attorney, to the Associated Press, "The zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself."

Of course, the zoo disagrees.

They assure that Happy is very well taken care of and, since she's not a person, habeas corpus rights don't apply to her anyway. They claim 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".

The court ruling happened in mid-June.

In a 5-2 decision, the court rejected the lawsuit and sided with the zoo, agreeing that she's not a human that's being illegally detained so habeas corpus law does not apply.

"No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion," the court ruling said, but "nothing in our precedent [...] provides support for the notion that the writ of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to nonhuman animals."

Obviously, the Nonhuman Rights Project is upset by this ruling.

They called it "a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice."

There are lots of people who are up in arms over the ruling. As Judge Jenny Rivera said, “A gilded cage is still a cage. Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity.”

h/t: IFLScience