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Are animals 'persons'? New York court hears the case of Happy the elephant
An elephant at the Bronx Zoo has become a cause célèbre for animal rights activists.
- A 47-year-old Asian elephant's final years are at issue in legal proceedings.
- The larger question is whether or not animals are entitled to habeas corpus rights.
- Several judges have gone on record stating that courts need to face the issue of legal rights for animals such as Happy.
Happy is a 47-year-old elephant who lives at the Bronx Zoo. Although the zoo had claimed in 2006 that it would be inhumane to exhibit such a social creature by itself, that pretty much describes Happy's current living conditions. The zoo now has one other elephant, Patty, but the two are kept separate over concerns that they don't get along. Happy spends most of her time in a cage that's about twice her body length, a far cry from her natural free-roaming habitat. The New York Times has previously written about Happy, and a change.org petition on Happy's behalf has over a million signatures.
Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with another elephant, Grumpy, who died in 2002. The elephants were part of a group of calves purchased for $800 and imported to the U.S. by the now-defunct Lion Country Safari, and named after Snow White's seven dwarves.
The Bronx Zoo—which is operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—opposes Happy's relocation. The organization asserts it "takes excellent care of Happy and will continue to do so, along with all animals here at the zoo. Her well-being is assured by our dedicated staff and all the expertise they bring in providing excellent care for her for more than 40 years."
On Thursday, November 19, 2020, the case will wend its way to New York State's First Department courtroom for oral arguments.
The work of the NhRP
A captive Asian elephant in Germany
Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
We've written previously about the NhRP and its legal work aimed at securing personhood rights for non-humans, including two chimpanzees named Tommy and Kiko. The premise of the chimps' case was that they deserved protection from unlawful detention or imprisonment afforded under the legal concept of habeas corpus.
In law, there are only two things an entity can be: It can be either a thing or a person. It's obvious that intelligent, feeling creatures—and we're learning that more and more animals are exactly this—are not just things. However, getting courts to recognize them as persons is a heavy lift. As NhRP attorney Steven M. Wise tells Big Think, "the word 'person' came loaded with emotional baggage," with people mistaking the legal term "person" as being synonymous with the common use of the word "human."
In the end, the NhRP wasn't able to secure the release of Tommy and Kiko to a chimp sanctuary, but nonetheless managed to move animal rights forward with a remarkable opinion by associate Eugene M. Fahey of the New York Court of Appeals. While ruling against the NhRP over legal technicalities, Fahey delivered a groundbreaking dissent about which Wise says, "I think in the years to come, that Judge Fahey's concurrence [with NhRP] is going to be seen as the breakthrough in the United States towards gaining legal rights for non-human animals."
"While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a 'person,'" Fahey wrote, "there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing." He added, "The reliance on a paradigm that determines entitlement to a court decision based on whether the party is considered a 'person' or relegated to the category of a 'thing' amounts to a refusal to confront a manifest injustice."
An easier case to make
Fahey did disagree with the NhRP on one point—aside from the legal issue on which the court ruled against them—and Wise says that after thinking about Fahey's perspective for the last few years, he now agrees. The NhRP is pursuing a very different approach for Happy than they did for Tommy and Kiko.
Fahey noted that with laws already on the books such as New York State's pet trust statute that make Happy a beneficiary of legal protections, she already has rights. Following logically from that is that if she has rights, the judge pointed out, she is not a thing and therefore qualifies as a legal person entitled to habeas corpus protection.
In the past, the NhRP argued that Tommy and Kiko qualified as legal persons who would then deserve rights. Fahey's insight has given the NhRP a far easier case to make. It no longer requires a court to invent some new status that's neither thing nor person to deliver justice to animals.
Happy's case moves forward
Asian elephant in the wild
Credit: Deanna DeShea/Unsplash
The proceedings on Happy's behalf have been going on since October 2018. The case began in New York's Orleans County, some 300 miles northwest of the Bronx Zoo. It was a district identified by the NhRP as perhaps holding a sympathetic view of personhood based on a case in which it granted a used-car dealership that status as a victim of a break-in. Wise recalls a sentence in the judgement that caught NhRP's attention: "It's common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach to non-human entities like corporations or animals."
So far, it's been a long series of push-and-pull maneuvers between the NhRP and WCS. While WCS has generally been winning judgements, often on proceeding-related grounds, NhRP has scored some landmark victories.
In December 2018, the New York Supreme Court, Orleans County heard oral arguments regarding elephants' rights to habeas corpus based on Fahey's guidance. This was the first-ever such hearing on behalf of an elephant, and only the second for animals altogether. (The first was for two of the NhRP's early clients, chimps Hercules and Leo.) The hearing resulted in the case being transferred to the Bronx as per the WCS's wishes.
In Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt, the NhRP found a sympathetic judge who heard an extraordinary 13 hours of arguments during which the NhRP presented testimony supporting their case from five elephant experts. Wise notes that the WCS, which employs many of its own elephant experts, curiously chose not to present any testimony from them supporting the position that Happy should remain where she is.
After hearing arguments, Tuitt described Happy, the first elephant ever to have passed the mirror self-awareness test, as "an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytical abilities akin to human beings." She also concluded that Happy "is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty."
While WCS presented detailed descriptions of Happy's current care, health, and status, Tuitt notes in her opinion that "none of the Bronx Zoo's affiants present any evidence that they have studied any wild elephant, or know about any elephant's basic social, emotional, behavioral, liberty, and autonomy needs, whether captive or wild."
Tuitt rejected WCS position that Happy's current living situation at the Bronx Zoo is the best option available for the elephant, stating that "the arguments advanced by the NhRP are extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary."
Expressing regret, Tuitt felt bound by appellate court decisions regarding NhRP's chimp cases and ruled against releasing Happy. Fahey has written elsewhere that he now believes those earlier cases in which he participated were wrongly decided.
The NhRP is appealing on November 19 to the First Judicial Department, which Wise says is not bound, as are other courts, by previous rulings. He feels optimistic that with Tuitt's supportive decision in hand, he won't need to spend so much precious court time relitigating the basics of the NhRP's case. He also notes that should the WCS once again prevail, the next stop would be the Court of Appeals, where Fahey is one of seven justices who will hear Happy's case.
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.