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.
One day, we might be able to say that the dog saved the cheetah from extinction.
Kittens and puppies growing up together isn’t that strange, but most people don’t imagine this with baby cheetahs in the mix.
The cheetah is the fastest cat, in terms of running. In terms of breeding, it might be one of the slowest, to the point where it doesn’t happen at all. National Geographic reported in December 2016 that there were around 7,100 left in the wild. This is close to complete extinction. The population got so low for several reasons, including poaching, desperate farm owners protecting their land, and also the nature of the cat's panicky personality. Cheetahs are anxious and nervous. Equipped with thin bodies built for speed, they’d rather outrun enemies than put up a fight. Their jaws are not as strong as other cats, and their teeth are not as large, so if another predator comes along after a cheetah has made a kill, the cheetah will likely not defend its food. In zoos and habitats, the instinct to remain anxious and alert doesn’t leave, even if they are safe from predators. In this case, their energy has nowhere to go. They are stuck, jittery and restless, waiting for something to happen.
When cats are this nervous, they aren’t as likely to mate.
Many zoos, such as the Cincinnati, Columbus, Metro Richmond, and San Diego zoos, have had canines and cats cohabiting in order to save the species, according to CBS News. In 2013, the Dallas Zoo raised two cheetah kittens and a black Labrador puppy, only two days younger than the cats, together.
Pairing the animals for a new cross-species litter works because of the animals’ personalities. Though dogs and cats are very different, and dog people may not see eye-to-eye with cat people, it is clear that one can help the other by learning to be more playful and relaxed. The overall goal is for the puppies to teach these small differences of behavior to the cheetah cubs. They play together, and the dogs calm the cats when needed, as a litter mate, sibling, and best friend, through thick and thin.
This is not the only way that dogs have helped to save the species. The Cheetah Conservation Fund encouraged the use of large dogs, specifically the Anatolian Shepherd, on farms in areas of Namibia where cheetahs are native. Since cheetahs learned sometimes it is easier to sneak onto farmland for a good snack rather than hunt, most of the time farmers shoot them down to save their herds. However, the Anatolian Shepherd is scary enough to keep cats from creeping onto the land. With a bark, the cheetah goes running, and there is no reason for the farmer to harm the animal. Since 1994, when the use of the Anatolian Shepherd was first introduced in Namibia, the cheetah population has reportedly doubled in size. Right now it is possible to donate to the Conservation Fund, or even sponsor an Anatolian Shepherd to participate in the program.
While a trip to Namibia is likely not an easy option, heading down to the local zoo is. Many zoos now are hopping on the conservation train by bringing in dogs to stay with their cheetahs, often adopted mutts from local shelters or they are sometimes Labradors or Shepherds. Now it is easy to witness the unusual dual-species friendship firsthand. It is heartwarming enough to see from the CBS news video, as a Labrador dog cuddles and licks a cheetah after surgery. The caretakers even stressed that they believed the cub wouldn’t have made it without her canine sibling. While dogs and cats might be neighborhood enemies, in the game of conservation, their friendship can save the species.
Cheetahs and giraffes have been placed on the conservation "red list" due to collapsing populations.
Experts are warning that two iconic animals are nearing extinction.
Giraffes, world’s tallest animals, suffered a grave decline in their population, losing 40% of it in the last 30 years. There are about 97,500 giraffes in the world today, plummeting from 157,000.
Giraffes were added to the so-called “red list” of threatened species, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They were given a ‘vulnerable’ status.
Cheetahs, world’s fastest land animals, are faring even worse. There are about 7,100 of them remaining in the wild, with their numbers decimated in places like Zimbabwe by 85%, according to a new study from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Calls are out to change its status on the “red list” from “vulnerable” to “endangered”.
“We’ve just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction,” said Dr. Kim Young-Overton, from Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization. “The takeaway from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-reaching cats inhabit, If we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”
Animals go extinct for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with human interference in their habitats. In fact, it’s considered the animal kingdom is undergoing a “mass extinction”. An analysis of wild creatures found that their number will be reduced by two-thirds come 2020, if compared to 1970.
The list currently features 24,000 species at risk of extinction. Notably, the “red list” recently added 700 new bird species to its listing, 13 of which already went extinct.
“Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” said Inger Andersen, the director general of IUCN. “This red list update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought. Governments gathered at the UN biodiversity summit have the immense responsibility to step up their efforts to protect our planet’s biodiversity – not just for its own sake but for human imperatives such as food security and sustainable development.”
Of course, as with all things, there are naysayers, who view protecting endangered species as a waste of money that goes against survival of the fittest - a natural process. A 2012 study estimated it would cost $76 billion per year to preserve land animals under threat. And then there are similar costs for the marine animals. Why should we spend so much money and who should be spending it? What about helping people instead?
There’s also something to be said - why should we care specifically about giraffes and cheetahs? Why are they more special than, let’s say, chicken? Of course, giraffes and cheetahs are more rare, but consider how many chicken are slaughtered every year - about 8-9 billion in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, this number, while probably hard to exactly estimate, is north of 50 billion.
A chicken peers out from a cage at the Sanoh chicken farm January 27, 2007 in Suphanburi, Thailand. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Why do we not seem to care for the yearly extermination of a mind-boggling number of chicken? Ok, sure, they seem to be replaceable, but life is life. We value the esthetics of giraffes and cheetahs, beautiful and graceful animals, and thus exercise our choice to try to save them. What if we thought about humans that way? Only saving the pretty ones.
Against all this is, of course, the argument that biodiversity is key to preserving a healthy ecosystem, which we, humans, rely on for our own survival. Studies by ecologist Robert Constanza estimated that the benefits of conservation also have a significant economic impact. They outweighs the costs by a factor of 100.
And certainly humans are the ones increasing the rate of extinction. It is not proceeding at a rate observed in the past. You can argue that humans are also part of nature and as such everything we do is a natural process. But that seems like a way to absolve ourselves of any free will and responsibility.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, an achievement of President Richard Nixon’s administration, provides a great summary argument for why saving endangered species is important, saying they “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”
Still, at the end of the day, should we save giraffes and cheetahs? The answer depends on how you view the world. Let’s hope no one has to make such decisions about the human race some time down the line - like our future AI or alien overlords.
Cover photos: Mashatu game reserve. Botswana. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.