No freedom for Happy: Lonely Bronz Zoo elephant denied personhood

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Happy the elephant will remain at the Bronx Zoo. On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals decided she was not entitled to legal personhood, and therefore she has no rights to bodily liberty. The Asian elephant named Happy has been at the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years. 

Nonhuman Rights Project sued the zoo in 2018 after discovering Happy lived in isolation separated from the other two female elephants Peggy and Maxine. In 2002, Happy’s companion, Grumpy had died – Happy has been alone ever since, even though Happy never shared space with the other pachyderms. The argument contended Happy was being illegally detained at the zoo and should be transferred to a sanctuary for retired and rescued elephants.

The animal welfare organization wanted Happy moved from the Bronx Zoo “prison” to one of two elephant sanctuaries, where a more natural environment; Steven Wise, the group’s founder, stating Happy has been “a depressed, screwed-up elephant.”

Happy’s life has witnessed little freedom. She had been captured when still a baby in Thailand and brought to the United States where she was brought to Florida with six other elephants – all of them named from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ story. The Bronx Zoo acquired Happy (and Grumpy) in 1977, but not before the two were trained to do tricks, dress up and perform in elephant productions.

According to the New York Times, in 2005, Happy passed a mirror self-recognition test, touching an X marked on her head with her trunk while looking in a mirror — the first elephant to show such a degree of self-awareness (only human infants, apes and dolphins had done it before). Wise contended Happy was more than just property. After all, Happy had self-recognition.

Still the court rejected the legal principle of habeas corpus; people asserting to protect their bodily liberty and to contesting illegal confinement — only applies to humans and not animals like elephants.

In a statement posted Tuesday from the Nonhuman Rights Project, Wise applauded the dissents from the Honorable Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan D. Wilson as supporters work for nonhuman animal rights.

At the same time, 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.

Steven Wise

The Bronx Zoo maintains that Happy is doing well and she is well cared for and emotionally fine.

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He’ll do it when he feels like it.
2 replies
  1. tamara beinlich says:

    I was hoping but…….knew the Zoo would fight to Happy’s death to keep her imprisoned. Not enough people are protesting outside the zoo to help free Happy. Like all the Bronx zoo’s elephant Happy will die but unlike the others she will die lonely. 🙁


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