Charlie Buttrey

June 14, 2022

Humans do a lot of nasty things to animals.  The Draize Test, steel-jaw traps, factory farming and dog-fighting are just a few examples that come immediately to mind.

And then there are zoos.

I have always enjoyed the Bronx Zoo, but in my old age I’ve become to recognize that, while zoos may play an important role in raising awareness about habitat, biodiversity and climate change, they are, by and large, awful places for animals to live.

The Nonhuman Rights Project decided to go to court to spring Happy the Elephant from confinement in the Bronx Zoo. The organization maintains that “at least some nonhuman animals” are “legal persons” entitled to fundamental rights, including “bodily integrity and bodily liberty,” and have argued — particularly on behalf of chimpanzees and elephants in zoos and lab settings — that such highly-intelligent animals are legally “persons”, and are being unlawfully confined. Thus, the Nonhuman Rights Project argues, the animals are entitled to the remedy of habeas corpus.

Happy the Elephant, they maintain, is a “depressed elephant,” adding that “elephants are evolved to move—Happy just stands there.” They would like Happy to be sent to an accredited sanctuary to be with other elephants in a larger, more natural-setting than her current one-acre enclosure, where she lives alone. As social and intelligent creatures, elephants need companionship, they insist—not “solitary confinement.” The Bronx Zoo — where Happy has lived for 40 years — begs to differ, saying that “Happy is not languishing. She is quite content and evaluated frequently by the people that know her best including the veterinarians that have cared for her for years as well as the keepers who interact with Happy for hours every day.”

Yesterday, by a 5-2 margin, New York’s highest court rejected the bid for Happy’s freedom. “While no one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants, we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf,” chief judge Janet DiFiore wrote. “Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Rowan Wilson, who wrote that Happy’s confinement is “inherently unjust and inhumane,” disputed the notion that habeas corpus applies only to humans, arguing that the writ was “vigorously used to challenge the detention of slaves when, under law, they were deemed chattel.”

That this dispute made it to the New York Court of Appeals suggests that this is not the last we’ve heard of the matter.

© 2020 Charlie Buttrey Law by Nomad Communications