On June 14, the New York Court of Appeals decided that an elephant named Happy is not entitled to “bodily liberty”. The outcome of the historic hearing means that Happy will have to stay at the Bronx Zoo, where she has lived in captivity for over 40 years, rather than being moved to a sanctuary.
The case, which the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) brought on Happy’s behalf, is part of a growing movement to secure rights for nonhumans and nature. Dissent from two of the judges in Happy’s case, along with wins that have happened elsewhere, indicate that a transformation among human societies is slowly taking place. That shift promises a radical change in how we view and treat other animals and the natural world.
Captivity takes a serious toll
Captured from the wild as a baby, Happy has spent her entire life in the service of humans. Since 1977, she has been on display at the Bronx Zoo. The zoo, which is operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has another elephant in captivity, Patty, who lives in a separate enclosure.
A recent report by the animal protection nonprofit Born Free documents the impact of captivity on the emotionally and socially complex species. As conservation biologist Dr. Keith Lindsay explains, the report shows the “severe restrictions” elephants experience in zoos compared to life in the wild and “the resultant toll taken on their minds and bodies.”
NhRP began working on Happy’s case in 2018. The organization says that the zoo “comes nowhere close to providing Happy with the freedom, enrichment, and opportunity for healing that a sanctuary can.” During the recent trial, NhRP called for the recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and her right to bodily liberty using habeas corpus. This principle allows legal persons to challenge the legality of their confinement.
WCS contested the idea that Happy is a “legal person” who is illegally detained, asserting that she is respected and well cared for, the Guardian reports.
A split decision
The New York Court of Appeals heard the case in May, following a decision in a lower court. The judges delivered their ruling on June 14 with a 5-2 vote rejecting the case for Happy’s liberty.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote that “the impressive capabilities of elephants” wasn’t in dispute, according to a New York Times report. But the majority rejected NhRP’s arguments, stating that “habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.”
Dissenting Judges Jenny Rivera and Rowan D. Wilson disagreed. Wilson characterized the majority’s argument as a textbook response to something that has never been done before. Such reasoning “is an argument against all progress, one that flies in the face of legal history,” he wrote.
Rivera pointed to an overlooked fact in the majority decision, namely that “humans are animals” too. She noted that an explanation of why only some animals, i.e. humans, may seek habeas relief, was “glaringly absent” from the decision.
In its response to the ruling, NhRP said it was a loss for Happy and her freedom. But it described the dissents as “a tremendous victory in a national and global struggle for nonhuman animal rights which we’ve only just begun.”
Human needs ‘still at the center’
A related battle in the court of public opinion played out in Switzerland earlier this year. After a lengthy legal tussle, the organization Sentience Politics succeeded in securing a referendum on whether to grant rights to nonhuman primates.
Switzerland has what is called a direct or semi-direct democracy, meaning people periodically get to vote on matters of policy. Under this system, people in the canton Basel-Stadt voted in February on Sentience’s initiative to extend the right to life, along with physical and mental integrity, to nonhuman primates.
The referendum vote did not go in nonhuman primates’ favor, with around a quarter of people voting to enhance their rights. Nonetheless, the organization’s campaign manager Tamina Graber told Sentient Media that the fact one in four people in Basel wanted to do so was “already a huge success.”
Graber says that the vote has helped to force a realization among people that “in animal protection, our human needs are still at the center,” with humans “systematically” putting themselves above everyone and everything else.
A sign of progress
Although Happy’s case and the referendum didn’t achieve their ultimate aims, they represent meaningful steps forward for society at large. “It’s a huge sign of progress that these conversations are taking place” in both the courts and public votes, said NhRP’s communications director Lauren Choplin.
The movement away from humans considering themselves wholly separate and superior to other animals and the natural world is evident elsewhere. There have been multiple wins over the past few years that secured the rights of nature, and species living therein, in different parts of the world.
Ecuador, for example, has the rights of nature enshrined in its constitution. In December 2021, its constitutional court put the brakes on a mining project to protect a legally enshrined forest from being destroyed. “The endangered frogs, the spectacled bears, the spider monkey, the birds, and nature as a whole have won an unprecedented battle,” co-founder of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature Natalia Greene said in a statement.
Efforts to secure rights for nature and nonhuman animals challenge the idea of human superiority over the rest of the living world, which has been dominant for centuries, particularly in the West.
Greene says that the so-called “rights of nature” movement is essentially shifting the “paradigm,” from a human-centered anthropocentric point of view to an eco-centric one. The movement reminds people that “you’re part of nature, you are nature,” she says, echoing a worldview that many Indigenous peoples have held for millennia.
The majority decision in Happy’s case, however, illustrated an enduring resistance to this paradigm shift. The judges warned that a win for Happy “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society,” indicating that it could open the floodgates for the rights of other nonhumans. Dissenting Judge Wilson dismissed the majority’s warning about this impact, asserting that “whether a being can invoke habeas is highly case-specific.”
Melanie Challenger, author of How to Be Animal: What It Means to Be Human, a new book that investigates the philosophical and ethical questions at the center of our existence, argues that the “exploitation of nature and other species” is “deeply embedded” on a financial, emotional, and cultural level. Challenger says that the fear “that human life somehow has less value if you raise the value of other life forms” plays a crucial part in this.
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.