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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.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
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- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
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Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.