Happy the Elephant Is Not a Person, Court Rules

Bronx Zoo resident is "deserving of compassion," but can't move to a sanctuary.

Happy the elephant in the Bronx Zoo

Gigi Glendinning

Happy the elephant is deserving of compassion, but the Bronx Zoo resident is not a person who is being illegally detained. 

That was the ruling of New York State’s Court of Appeals after an animal rights group asked the courts to release the 51-year-old female Asian elephant to an animal sanctuary.

“No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” wrote Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in the decision. But the decision says that a writ of habeas corpus is to protect people from illegal custody and doesn’t apply to Happy.

“Happy, as a nonhuman animal, does not have a legally cognizable right to be at liberty under New York law,” she wrote.

DiFiore added that freeing “Happy would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society” and “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.”

A 5-2 Decision

Happy the elephant in enclosure

Gigi Glendinning

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition in October 2018 “demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty and her release to an elephant sanctuary.”

In the petition, the Florida-based group said that Happy was being “unlawfully imprisoned solely because she is an elephant.”

They objected to Happy being held alone in a small enclosure. A petition hoping for an end to Happy’s solitary confinement has more than 1.4 million signatures.

Two judges dissented in the 5-2 decision. Judges Rowan Wilson and Jenny Rivera wrote impassioned dissents.

“Happy’s confinement by human beings has never been intended to benefit her but serves only to entertain and satisfy human curiosity, regardless of the loss of freedom to Happy. She is held in an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life as she was meant to: as a self-determinative, autonomous elephant in the wild,” wrote Rivera. 

“Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive—a spectacle for humans—we, too, are diminished.”

What the Ruling Means

Happy the elephant holding on to enclosure bars

Gigi Glendinning

Born in the wild in 1971, Happy was likely captured in Thailand and was brought to the U.S. to live in a now-defunct animal attraction in California. She was moved to Florida and then to the Bronx Zoo in 1977.

In addition to being on view for visitors, elephants at the zoo in the ‘80s gave rides, participated in tug-of-war contests, and performed tricks. In 2005, Happy was the first elephant to pass the mirror test of self-recognition. She faced a large mirror and repeatedly touched an “X” above her eye which could only be seen in a mirror. The test is believed to be a marker of self-awareness.

In a statement, 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.”

View Article Sources
  1. State of New York. Nonhuman Rights Project v. James J. Breheny. 14 Jun 2022. Opinion, Court of Appeals.

  2. "First elephant to pass mirror self-recognition test; held alone at the Bronx Zoo." Nonhuman Rights Project.

  3. State of New York. Nonhuman Rights Project v. James J. Breheny. 2 Oct. 2018. Verified Petition, Supreme Court County of Orleans.

  4. "End Happy the Elephant's 10 Years of Solitary Confinement." Change.org.

  5. Bridges, Andrew. "Mirror test suggests elephants are self-aware." NBC News, 30 Oct. 2006.

  6. Nonhuman Rights Project. Response to New York Court of Appeals Decision in Happy the Elephant Case. Facebook, 14 Jun 2022.