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Legal Case Examines if Elephant Can Be Considered a Person

In this October 2, 2018 file photo, Bronx Zoo elephant "Happy" walks in the zoo's Asia Habitat in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
In this October 2, 2018 file photo, Bronx Zoo elephant "Happy" walks in the zoo's Asia Habitat in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
Legal Case Examines if Elephant Can be Considered a Person
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She has four limbs, expressive eyes and likes to walk through greenery in New York City. Happy is an Asian elephant. But can she also be considered a person?

That question was before New York’s highest court this week.

The case involves the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP) and the Bronx Zoo.

Supporters at the Nonhuman Rights Project say Happy is an independent being with complex thinking abilities. They want her moved from what they say is a prison-like space she lives in at the zoo. They argue that she should have that right under law as “a person.”

The Bronx Zoo, where Happy lives, argues Happy is neither illegally imprisoned nor a person. The zoo says Happy is a well-cared-for elephant “respected as the magnificent creature she is.”

Happy has lived at the Bronx Zoo for 45 years. The state Court of Appeals heard arguments over whether she should be released through a special proceeding, known as a habeas corpus proceeding. It is a way for people to fight illegal imprisonment.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Happy moved from the zoo to a larger area.

Project attorney Monica Miller told The Associated Press ahead of the court arguments that Happy “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.”

Miller added, “And the zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself.”

The group said that in 2005, Happy became the first elephant to pass a self-awareness test. Happy repeatedly touched a white “X” on her forehead as she looked into a large mirror.

The zoo and its supporters warn that a win for the Nonhuman Rights Project could open the door to more legal actions about animals, including pets and other animals in zoos.

Happy was born in the wild in Asia in the early 1970s. She was captured and brought as a 1-year-old to the United States.

Happy arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977 with Grumpy, another elephant. Grumpy died 20 years ago after a fight with two other elephants.

Happy now lives in an area next to the zoo’s other elephant, Patty. The zoo’s attorney argued in court filings that Happy can swim, eat and do other behaviors that are natural for elephants.

NRP’s lawyers say no matter how Happy is being treated at the zoo, her right to “bodily liberty” is being violated. If the court recognizes Happy’s right to that liberty under habeas corpus, she must be released, they argue.

Judge Jenny Rivera asked Miller about NRP’s position on human-animal relationships.

“So does that mean that I couldn’t keep a dog?” Rivera asked. “I mean, dogs can memorize words.”

Miller said there evidence showing elephants are more mentally complex.

Lower courts have ruled against the NRP. And the group has failed to win in similar cases, including one involving a chimpanzee named Tommy.

Opponents hope the NRP’s series of court losses continues with the New York court.

The court’s decision is expected in the coming months.

At least one animal rights supporter suggests a court decision will not change society’s view of animal use. Rutgers Law School professor Gary Francione, who is not involved in the case, said that would require a wider cultural change.

I’m John Russell.

Michael Hill reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

limb – n. a leg or arm

magnificent adj. very beautiful or impressive : very great

self-awareness – n. : knowledge of your own existence or personality

prohibit – v. to say that (something) is not allowed; to make (something) impossible to do

mirror – n. a piece of glass that reflects images

memorize – v. to learn (something) so well that you are able to remember it perfectly