Elephant May Be a Person In Historic Court Case
Freelance Journalist and Environmental Research Intern | Bristol, UK | Contactable via hello@livekindly.co

In a historic court case, the Orleans County Supreme Court may rule that the isolated Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy has legal personhood.

Happy’s Story

Happy is the elephant infamously held in isolation at the Bronx Zoo; she is also the first ever elephant to officially show signs of self-awareness through the mirror self-recognition test.

In 2005, Happy showed self-awareness by touching a mark that scientists drew on her head after seeing the reflection of it in a mirror; she understood that the elephant in the mirror was herself.

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Yet despite her high levels of intelligence, the elephant has remained largely in isolation for more than a decade. In 2015, Happy’s story was covered by The New York Times, which dubbed the 44-year-old (at the time) elephant “The Bronx Zoo’s Loneliest Elephant.” The zoo has also been labeled one of America’s worst zoos for elephants by animal protection group In Defense of Animals, and urged to send Happy to a sanctuary.

While the zoo promised to end its elephant program, redirecting its resources to benefit wild elephants, Happy remains isolated.

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The Possibility of Freedom

This week, famed primatologist and environmentalist Dr. Jane Goodall, legal scholar Steven M. Wise who specializes in animal protection issues and animal intelligence, and the Nonhuman Rights Project legal team secured a victory for the advanced elephant. Happy has been granted a Writ of Habeus Corpus, a right bestowed to (usually human) individuals to show that they have been wrongfully or illegally imprisoned. This means that Tracey A. Bannister, a justice of the Orleans Country Supreme Court, must rule on whether the elephant holds the status of legal personhood.

Only one other nonhuman species has been granted this writ; two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, were previously afforded the right, though they were denied personhood following precedent from a higher court.

Now, according to Forbes, “The team is calling for a fundamental change in our laws–because laws that call elephants ‘things’ cannot be supported logically, legally, morally or scientifically.”

Wise is asking both members of the public and the courts to “Look at who they are,” and to consider the evidence that elephants are “autonomous beings.” He says, “It’s wrong to treat them as if they’re basic, inanimate beings… They are extraordinarily cognitively complex and they ought to have fundamental legal rights that protect these fundamental cognitive characteristics.” 

The team is hoping that Bannister rules in favor of Happy’s personhood and enables the isolated elephant her to be removed from the Bronx Zoo to a sanctuary. If this were to happen, Happy would also achieve another first for elephants: she would become the first nonhuman granted personhood in the U.S.

Wise is hopeful of this prospect. He says, “I think [Bannister] believes that there is some reasonable chance that after oral arguments she could decide that Happy the elephant is a person.”

While the ruling may not explicitly declare that Happy is a legal person, a decision to release the animal indirectly accepts that the elephant has a degree of personhood – and may revolutionize the way both humans and the law regard animals.

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Judge Will Decide If Bronx Zoo Elephant is a Nonhuman Person
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Judge Will Decide If Bronx Zoo Elephant is a Nonhuman Person
After she gained a Habeous Corpus Writ, the Orleans County Supreme Court may rule that the Bronx Zoo's isolated elephant, Happy, has legal personhood. 
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