Happy, a 50-year-old Asian elephant, has lived at the Bronx Zoo in New York City since 1977. For a long time, her friend, Grumpy, kept her company. But Grumpy died in 2002, and Happy doesn’t get along with the other elephants. So for almost two decades now, she’s lived in a 1-acre enclosure by herself.
The zoo maintains that Happy is well cared for in her current home. But this arrangement is not how elephants live in the wild, and as a result, Happy has become the center of a fierce legal battle. Elephants are highly social and intelligent, so some animal rights advocates argue that Happy belongs in a sanctuary, where she’d have companions and more space to roam. An animal rights lawyer who claims to represent Happy is asking the court to issue a writ of habeas corpus, a legal course of action that under U.S. law can be used to object to the wrongful imprisonment of a person (see “Habeas Corpus, Explained,” below).
The problem: Animals don’t have the same legal rights as humans. In order to use habeas corpus to protect Happy, lawyers must convince a judge that the elephant should legally be considered a person, rather than someone’s property.
Happy is not the only animal whose rights are being fought over in court. An advocacy group called the Nonhuman Rights Project, which filed Happy’s lawsuit, has also filed suits in recent years on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York and three elephants in a traveling circus in Connecticut. They lost those cases. But the fact that judges seriously considered the matter is something that probably wouldn’t have happened a few decades ago, experts say. And the number of these personhood cases is increasing in the U.S., according to Kristen Stilt, faculty director of the Harvard Animal Law & Policy program, who sees the trend as necessary.
“We’re at the point where high cognitive animals with a very clear sense of their past, present, and future, along with familial units [such as elephants, primates, whales, and octopuses], need not be treated as mere things,” she argues.