New Elephant Rights Lawsuit Demands Liberty, Sanctuary for Elephant Confined Alone at the Bronx Zoo

New York, NY, Oct. 2, 2018The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced today it is filing a petition in New York Supreme Court, Orleans County for a common law writ of habeas corpus and order to show cause on behalf of Happy, a 47-year-old Asian elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo and the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror self-recognition test.

With support from world-renowned elephant experts, the NhRP is demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty as well as her transfer to an elephant sanctuary. For the last twelve years, the zoo has housed Happy in a rotating portion of its 1.15-acre exhibit, separated from elephants Patty and Maxine who, in 2002, fatally injured Happy’s longtime elephant companion Grumpy.

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“Our world-class experts say that, like all elephants, Happy is an autonomous being who evolved to walk 20 or more miles a day as a member of a multi-generational large social group,” said Steven M. Wise, founder and president of the NhRP. “The entirety of the zoo’s elephant exhibit provides far less than even one percent of the space she would roam in a single day in the wild. She doesn’t belong to a social group. Her autonomy is thwarted daily. This has got to stop.”

The filing of the suit follows New York courts’ recent embrace of nonhuman legal personhood and rights. In May, New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey wrote in a concurring opinion in the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases that “the issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that [a chimpanzee] is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.” In June, New York’s Fourth Judicial Department cited to the NhRP’s case on behalf of chimpanzee Kiko in People v. Graves, writing, “[I]t is common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach to nonhuman entities like corporations or animals.”

Under New York habeas corpus procedure, the NhRP can file suit in any county. The NhRP chose to file in Orleans County (part of the Fourth Department) because the First Department, which oversees the county where the Bronx Zoo is located, “has demonstrated that it is willing to ignore powerful legal arguments and deprive an autonomous being such as Happy of any and all of her rights, just because she is not a human,” said Elizabeth Stein, NhRP staff attorney and New York counsel. Judge Fahey noted in May that the First Department’s “conclusion that a chimpanzee cannot be considered a ‘person’ and is not entitled to habeas relief is in fact based on nothing more than the premise that a chimpanzee is not a member of the human species.”

Happy’s habeas corpus petition is the NhRP’s third on behalf of captive elephants. The NhRP has filed two petitions on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie, three elephants held in captivity at a Connecticut-based traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo.

As the only civil rights organization in the US seeking recognition of the personhood and rights of self-aware, autonomous nonhuman animals, the NhRP views its mission and work as part of the broader struggle to uphold and strengthen the fundamental values and principles of justice—such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness—that already help protect vulnerable human beings from abuses of power.

“As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Happy, other elephants, and other autonomous nonhuman animals are the victims of severe ongoing injustices,” Wise said. “We have a moral duty to recognize these injustices as such and to correct them: not just for the sake of animals like Happy, but also to preserve justice for human beings.”

Visit the NhRP’s Litigation page for more information about this case and the NhRP’s other cases.


Founded in 1996 by attorney Steven M. Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) works to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through litigation, advocacy, and education. Our mission is to change the legal status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them. Our current plaintiffs are members of species who have been scientifically proven to be autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales. We are working with teams of attorneys on four continents to develop campaigns to achieve legal rights for nonhuman animals that are suited to the legal systems of these countries. We filed our first cases in December of 2013, and our work is the subject of the 2016 Pennebaker Hegedus/HBO documentary film Unlocking the Cage, which has been seen by millions around the world.  www.nonhumanrights.org