Bronx Zoo elephant “Happy” strolls in a habitat inside the zoo’s Asia display on Tuesday. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

The group that has made unsuccessful attempts in the past to convince New York judges to grant habeas corpus to captive chimpanzees is launching a new fight, this time for the freedom of a 47-year-old elephant who lives in the Bronx Zoo.

The Nonhuman Rights Project has filed for a writ of habeas corpus for Happy, an Asian elephant that the group says has been held alone for 12 years at the Bronx Zoo in a 1.15-acre pen.

The group fought an ultimately losing battle to move chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko to a South Florida animal sanctuary; last year, the Appellate Division, First Department denied habeas for the chimps and the state Court of Appeals declined to grant leave to appeal the First Department decision.  

But Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said in an interview that in Happy’s case, the group is emboldened by the fact that, in the five years since he began representing Tommy and Kiko, some New York judges have begun to take the argument of personhood for animals more seriously.

“Happy, other elephants, and other autonomous nonhuman animals are the victims of severe ongoing injustices,” Wise said in a news release. “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.”

In May, when the Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal the First Department’s ruling to grant habeas for Tommy and Kiko, Judge Eugene Fahey took the unprecedented step of writing a concurrence for the denial, in which he criticized the First Department’s reasoning and said the high court was not declining to take up the case based on the merits.

Fahey said the First Department’s denial of habeas for Tommy and Kiko was based on “nothing more” than the fact that chimps aren’t members of the human race, and that the courts must eventually come to grips as to whether animals are entitled to habeas or if they should be considered a “thing” in the eyes of the law.

“The inadequacy of the law as a vehicle to address some of our most difficult ethical dilemmas is on display in this matter,” Fahey said.

Following Fahey’s concurrence, Wise said, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department issued a ruling that opened a door for arguing for the personhood of nonhumans. It found that an auto dealership where a defendant took part in a vandalism spree was a private corporation and thus had personhood.

So it’s not by happenstance that the group filed the habeas petition for Happy in Orleans County, located in the northwest corner of New York state, some 380 miles from Happy’s home at the zoo. It falls within the jurisdiction of the Fourth Department, where Fahey previously served as an Appellate Division judge before he was elevated to the Court of Appeals, and where Wise said he thinks he can find a court to rule in his favor. 

In a statement forwarded by a representative, James Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo and an executive vice president with the Wildlife Conservation Society who is named as defendant in the suit, took jabs at the Nonhuman Rights Project, accusing the group of propagating lies about the Bronx Zoo elephants.

“The Nonhuman Rights Project is exploiting the Bronx Zoo elephants to advance their own failing cause in the courts as they put forth ludicrous legal arguments and lies about our elephants, facilities and staff,” he said.

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