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Bronx Zoo elephant Happy gets court win ahead of her biggest trial

In October last year, the NhRP filed a habeas corpus petition on Happy’s behalf in the New York Supreme Court, Orleans County, seeking recognition of her personhood and right to liberty and her release to an accredited sanctuary. This was the first such hearing on behalf of an elephant in legal history, the organisation says.

Happy’s case was transferred to the Bronx Supreme Court where it is next due for a hearing on October 21.

Happy in her enclosure at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Happy in her enclosure at the Bronx Zoo in New York.Credit:Gigi Glendinning, Nonhuman Rights Project

However, lawyers for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo, refused to agree that the zoo would not move Happy from New York State before the upcoming hearing.

NhRP then sought an order in the Bronx Supreme Court preventing the zoo from moving Happy out of New York before that hearing.

Last Monday, Justice Alison Y. Tuitt granted that request.

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The NhRP said that removing Happy from New York would strip the New York courts of jurisdiction and prevent the organisation from obtaining its requested habeas corpus order requiring Happy’s release to an elephant sanctuary.

“We don’t know why the Bronx Zoo is now refusing to agree not to move Happy,” Kevin Schneider, executive director of the NhRP and the attorney who argued for the order, said.

“What’s clear is that, unless Happy is released to a sanctuary, any move the Bronx Zoo makes will serve only the Bronx Zoo’s interests, not hers.

“The primary question Justice Tuitt had for the Bronx Zoo was: what is the harm in granting this order? The Bronx Zoo didn’t have a good answer.

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“We look forward to discussing the harm caused by Happy’s imprisonment itself at our client’s next hearing.”

At the October 21 hearing, the NhRP will argue another series of procedural motions as well as the core merits of Happy’s habeas corpus petition.

In the US, and the rest of the world, animals are treated as “things”, not “persons”, and have no rights – for example, the right to be free. In law, not being a “legal person” prevents animals from having rights and so permits them to be misused and abused.

Happy is believed to have been born in the wild in Thailand in 1971.

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In 2005, she became the first elephant to recognise herself in a mirror, which is considered to be an indicator of self-awareness.

The NhRP said in a petition to the court: “Respondent’s imprisonment of Happy deprives her of her ability to exercise her autonomy in meaningful ways, including the freedom to choose where to go, what to do, and with whom to be.”

The lawsuit is supported by elephant experts, including Joyce Poole, who wrote in New York’s Daily News that “the Bronx Zoo’s exhibit is too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant”.

Dr Poole, who has studied elephants for more than 40 years in Africa, recommended that Happy be released to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California, where she can have the freedom to mingle with other elephants.

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Dr Poole disputes claims by Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny that Happy does not get on with other elephants and that she must remain where she is for her own good.

The case is also supported by celebrities such as Queen guitarist Brian May, elected officials such as New York City Council speaker Corey Johnson, and animal advocates in New York and around the world.

A Change.org petition for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has more than a million signatures.

Meanwhile, Happy’s ordeal drags on in a lonely Bronx enclosure and through the labyrinthine US justice system.

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