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

A judge in rural Orleans County, New York, located about 380 miles from the Bronx Zoo, said at a hearing Friday that the best venue for a legal battle over the release of Happy, an Asian elephant living alone at the zoo, is back on the elephant’s home turf.

The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by attorney Steven Wise, took the effort to free Happy to Orleans County, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, because the organization felt that a recent Fourth Department ruling that extended legal personhood to a vandalized auto dealership may help their case.

The Bronx, however, is within the jurisdiction of the Appellate Division, First Department, which did not find favorably for the Nonhuman Rights Project in its past effort to get habeas for Tommy and Kiko, two captive chimpanzees.

Wise said that state Supreme Court Justice Tracey Bannister issued a bench ruling in favor of the zoo’s motion for a venue change but that the judge did not rule on the merits of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s case.

Kenneth Manning, a Buffalo-based partner at Phillips Lytle and Wise’s opposing counsel, argued that the group was making an argument based on conditions of confinement, and thus habeas relief is not the proper avenue.

But Wise said his position is based on whether or not Happy should be confined at all.

“The question is whether you can be detained against your will,” Wise said. He said he is awaiting a written decision from the judge to determine his next steps, which may include appealing the matter to the Fourth Department.  

In a statement, Jim Breheny, director of the Bronx Zoo, said the Nonhuman Rights Project lacks standing to bring the case and that the group is “desperately” seeking ways to advance its agenda in the courts.

“The NRP has chosen to exploit Happy and capitalize on the Bronx Zoo name to advance its failed political agenda,” the statement reads. “They continue to waste court resources to promote their radical philosophical view of ‘personhood.’ The NRP’s own filings do not question Happy’s care or our facilities, but seek to have her recognized as an autonomous being and transferred to an elephant sanctuary.”

In the Nonhuman Rights Project’s previous effort to get Tommy and Kiko moved to an animal sanctuary in South Florida, the First Department found that the chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities do not translate to an ability to bear legal duties.

The state Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal the First Department, but Judge Eugene Fahey took the unusual step of issuing a concurring opinion with the denial in which he said that determining personhood for a chimpanzee should focus on whether or not they have the same liberty rights as humans, not whether or not they have the same rights or duties as a human.  

Read more:

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