Happy is a roughly 50-year-old Asian elephant living at the Bronx Zoo in New York City but could she also be considered a person?
According to Associated Press, that question was before New York’s highest court Wednesday in a closely watched case over whether a basic human right can be extended to an animal.
Advocates at the Nonhuman Rights Project say yes. Happy is an autonomous cognitively complex elephant worthy of the right reserved in law for “a person.”
The Bronx Zoo, however, says no, arguing that Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person, but a well-cared-for elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is,” reports associated press.
The state Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether Happy should be released through a habeas corpus proceeding with the NRP wanting to move her from a “one-acre prison” at the zoo to a more spacious sanctuary.
“She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with, and where to go, and what to do, and what to eat,” project attorney Monica Miller told The Associated Press. “And the zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself.”
The zoo and its supporters warn that a win for advocates at the NRP could open the door to more legal actions on behalf of animals, including pets and other species in zoos.
“If there’s going to entire be a rewrite and a granting to animals of rights that they never had before, shouldn’t that be done by the Legislature?” Kenneth Manning, an attorney for zoo operator Wildlife Conservation Society, asked the judges according to associated press.
“The blatant exploitation of Happy the elephant by NRP to advance their coordinated agenda shows no concern for the individual animal and reveals the fact they are willing to sacrifice Happy’s health and psychological well-being to set precedent,” the zoo said in a prepared statement.
NRP’s attorney argued that no matter how Happy is being treated, her right to “bodily liberty” is being violated and that if the court recognizes Happy’s right to that liberty, she will be a “person” for that purpose.
Lower courts have ruled against the NRP and the group has failed to prevail in similar cases, reported associated press.
Opponents hope the NRP’s string of court losses continues with the high-profile New York court expected to decide in the coming months.