ALBANY, N.Y. — Elephants are not human beings with constitutional rights, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.
The Nonhuman Rights Project had challenged the Bronx Zoo’s confinement of Happy, a 41-year-old pachyderm. After several of her companions have died, she and Patty — who do not get along — are the only two remaining elephants at the zoo.
The advocacy group had argued that the situation amounted to a cruel confinement. And Happy, as an intelligent being, should be able to sue under habeas corpus rights against improper detention.
But New York’s top court disagreed.
“No one disputes the impressive capabilities of elephants,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote in the majority 5-2 decision. But, she wrote, “nothing in our precedent or, in fact, that of any other state or federal court, provides support for the notion that the writ of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to nonhuman animals.”
Both sides acknowledged that Happy probably shouldn’t simply be let loose to roam the streets of New York City; the plaintiffs had sought her relocation to a sanctuary. And DiFiore said that proves the difference between her and human litigants.
“The relief requested is not discharge from confinement altogether but, rather, a transfer of Happy from one confinement to another of slightly different form—an implicit acknowledgement that Happy, as a nonhuman animal, does not have a legally cognizable right to be at liberty under New York law,” she wrote.
The chief judge also argued that a decision in favor of Happy “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”
“Indeed, followed to its logical conclusion, such a determination would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work,” she wrote.
Two of the court’s seven judges dissented, saying Happy should be afforded a better life.
“Historically, the Great Writ of habeas corpus was used to challenge detentions that violated no statutory right and were otherwise legal but, in a given case, unjust,” Judge Rowan Wilson wrote.
“Whether an elephant (or other animal) is a ‘person’ is not relevant to determining whether the writ of habeas corpus can be used to challenge a confinement,” he wrote. “All can agree that an elephant is not a member of the homo sapiens species. At the same time, an elephant is not a desk chair or an earthworm.”