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Siding with Bronx Zoo, judge rules Happy the elephant is not a person

A group called the Nonhuman Rights Project sought Happy's release from the zoo.

February 19, 2020, 9:16 PM

Happy the elephant will have to be happy just being an elephant.

A judge in the New York City has dismissed a lawsuit against the Bronx Zoo in which an animal welfare advocacy organization sought to declare Happy, an Asian elephant, a person with a right to be free.

The group, called the Nonhuman Rights Project, sought Happy's release from the zoo, where she's lived for nearly 50 years.

PHOTO: In this Oct. 2, 2018 file photo, Bronx Zoo elephant "Happy" strolls inside the zoo's Asia Habitat in New York.
In this Oct. 2, 2018 file photo, Bronx Zoo elephant "Happy" strolls inside the zoo's Asia Habitat in New York. On Tueday, Feb. 18, 2020, Bronx Judge Allison Tuitt dismissed the Nonhuman Rights Project's petition to have the elephant declared to have human-like rights and transferred to a sanctuary. They argued at that Happy is "unlawfully imprisoned" at the zoo where she has lived since 1977.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

Happy was part of a 2006 study published in the journal Science that described her ability to recognize herself in a mirror as evidence of human-like self-awareness. As such, Nonhuman Rights Project asserted, the elephant was not a thing lacking rights but akin to a person with a fundamental right to liberty based on the principle of habeas corpus, which guards against unlawful detention.

"The central purpose of habeas corpus is to release autonomous beings from illegal imprisonment," the group argued in its petition. "As an autonomous self-determining nonhuman, Happy is entitled to immediate release from her unlawful imprisonment."

The Nonhuman Rights Project has filed similar lawsuits before, but this was the only one taken seriously when the group persuaded a judge to at least consider transferring Happy to a sanctuary in California.

In a statement, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, called the lawsuit was "ill-conceived" and defended its care of Happy.

"We are pleased with the Bronx County Supreme Court's decision today to dismiss the Nonhuman Rights Project's petition. ... In doing so, the court supported the Bronx Zoo's legal position and we believe this decision is in Happy's best interests," the statement said. "The Bronx Zoo takes excellent care of Happy and will continue to do so, along with all animals here at the zoo."

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