ALBANY, N.Y. – New York State’s top court ruled that an elephant living at the Bronx Zoo is not legally a person, and thus not entitled to fundamental human rights.
In a decision handed down Tuesday, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said, “While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, the courts below properly granted the motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we therefore affirm.”
Animal rights advocates at the Nonhuman Rights Project had argued in a lawsuit that Happy, an Asian elephant who has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years, was being unlawfully held at the zoo and should be transferred to live at an animal sanctuary, as we previously reported.
“She’s a depressed, screwed-up elephant,” Steven Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s founder, told The New York Times in an interview before the ruling.
“Even petitioner implicitly concedes that Happy is not guaranteed freedom from captivity — the right to liberty — under the law. The relief suggested is not discharged from confinement altogether but, rather, a transfer of Happy from one confinement to another of slightly different form — an implicit acknowledgement that Happy, as nonhuman animal, does not have a legally cognizable right to be at liberty under New York law,” DiFiore said in the ruling.
The case had been closely watched by animal rights activists, as well as industries that depend on animals, such as agriculture, The Associated Press reported.
In the majority opinion, DiFiore acknowledged that, saying, “Granting legal personhood to a nonhuman animal in such a manner would have significant implications for the interactions of humans in all facets of life… followed to its logical conclusion, such a determination would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.”
There were two judges who dissented to the ruling, including Judge Rowan Wilson, who argued that “the question here is not whether Happy is a ‘person’ — Happy is an elephant. The question is not whether Happy’s detention violates some statute… the legal question presented is whether the detention of an elephant can ever be so cruel, so antithetical to the essence of an elephant, that the writ of habeas corpus should be made available under the common law.”
Judge Jenny Rivera, who also dissented to the majority opinion, said, “Happy is an autonomous, if not physically free, being. The law has a mechanism to challenge this inherently harmful confinement, and Happy should not be denied the opportunity to pursue and obtain relief by writ of habeas corpus … a gilded cage is still a cage. Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity.”
In a statement responding to the ruling, the Nonhuman Rights Project said, “this is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in a Bronx Zoo exhibit. It’s also a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice — autonomy, liberty, equality and fairness — and ensuring our legal system is free of arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied basic rights simply because of who they are.”
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