A New York court denies an elephant's right to be a person
The elephant 'Happy', in the enclosure where she lives in the Bronx Zoo (New York), in a 2018 image.
The elephant ‘Happy’, in the enclosure where she lives in the Bronx Zoo (New York), in a 2018 image.Baby Matthews (AP)

Happy, an Asian elephant from the Bronx Zoo (New York), will continue to live in captivity, in one of the great attractions of a little tourist neighborhood. A New York court has ruled this Tuesday against an animal group that sought the release of the elephant, considering that she deserves some human rights and that her imprisonment should end. In a decision taken by five votes in favor and two against, the Albany Court of Appeals, the highest judicial instance in the State, ruled against the habeas corpus filed by the animal rights group, Nonhuman Rights Project, which claims that the elephant, 51 years old, shares cognitive abilities with humans and is illegally detained.

“While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings who deserve proper care and compassion,” Chief Justice Janet DiFiore wrote, “Happy, as a non-human animal, does not have a legally recognizable right to freedom under New York law.” DiFiore also said that releasing Happy it would have “an enormously destabilizing impact on society” and could provoke a cascade of habeas corpus petitions to release animals, including many pets and animals used in agricultural or service work… Like the horses that pull tourist carriages in Central Park , whose hypothetical prohibition for the welfare of quadrupeds passes from one mayor to the next as a pending issue. This is a periodic controversy that is never resolved, due to the objections of the coachmen, whose livelihood would be in danger if animal traction was prohibited.

The Albany judge maintains that the debate on whether animals are granted the same rights as people should fall to the Assembly, seat of the state’s legislative power. In the linguistic and terminological correctness to use, these are always presented under the category “non-human animals”.

The NGO, based in Florida, launched its legal campaign four years ago, requesting that the elephant be released in one of the two shelters for pachyderms that exist in the United States. Happy, argued the animal group, has lived for more than 40 years in a space of 0.4 hectares, segregated from the rest of the elephants in the zoo. NonHuman Rights Project argued that Happy is “imprisoned” in those conditions. In its legal battle, the NGO had already received two opposing rulings from lower instances, which considered that Happy get the attention and care you need. So he went to the appeals court.

In two emotional dissents, the justices who voted to consider Happy one person express their disagreement with the ruling. “When the majority responds: ‘No, animals cannot have rights,’ I care about that animal, but I am even more concerned about how that response denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion” towards animals, he wrote. Judge Rowan Wilson, quoted by the Reuters agency. Despite the ruling against, underlines the newspaper New York Timesin case of Happy could be the first in the Anglo-Saxon field that raises whether an animal is worthy of personality. The NGO, moreover, does not give up, and last month it presented a habeas corpus to secure the release of three confined pachyderms in a zoo in Fresno (California). It is also especially active in asserting the rights of those beings so similar to us, the primates.

The Albany court refers to a possible legislative action to recognize the rights of non-human animals. As the Spanish Congress did last December, by regulating the legal regime of animals and considering them “sentient beings”. With the longevity of the elephants as the only trump card in favor of Happyone can only hope that New York legislators will one day take matters into their own hands.

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