NEW YORK, May 5, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced today that the New York Court of Appeals—one of the most influential state courts in the United States—has agreed to hear the habeas corpus case of its elephant client, Happy, an autonomous and cognitively complex nonhuman animal who has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo for over four decades. The decision marks the first time in history that the highest court of any English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a habeas corpus case brought on behalf of someone other than a human being.
The New York Court of Appeals agrees to hear only about 5% of the appeals that come before it. In deciding whether to hear an appeal, the Court weighs factors such as the novelty and public importance of the issues presented. The NhRP expects that briefs will be submitted by both parties in Summer 2021 and anticipates oral arguments by the end of the year.
"The Court granting our appeal is a historic moment for nonhuman animal rights in the world," said NhRP Founder and President Steven M. Wise. "The Nonhuman Rights Project has worked tens of thousands of hours over 25 years to reach this extraordinary milestone and we look forward to being able to make our compelling arguments to a state high court for the first time."
In October 2018, the NhRP brought a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Happy's behalf seeking recognition of her fundamental right to bodily liberty and transfer to an elephant sanctuary. Happy became the first elephant in the world to be granted a trial court hearing to determine the lawfulness of her imprisonment. Following several days of hearings in the Bronx, the trial court "regrettably" denied Happy's petition because of prior court decisions, which will now be examined for the first time by the Court of Appeals.
Happy is a 50-year-old wild-born Asian elephant who was taken from the wild and imported to the US in the early 1970s. In 1977 she was transferred to the Bronx Zoo, which is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, where she lives a solitary existence on a one-acre parcel of land. Before becoming the first elephant to have a habeas corpus hearing, Happy made history in 2005 as the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test.
Courts around the world have begun grappling with the broader issue of whether it is possible for any nonhuman animal to possess any legal right under any circumstance. For example:
In March 2021, a judge on the Colombian Constitutional Court issued a dissenting opinion in Chucho the spectacled bear's nonhuman rights case. The dissent repeatedly and favorably cites to the NhRP's US litigation, including Happy's case.
In Dec. 2020, Ecuador's Constitutional Court agreed to hear an appeal from the denial of a writ of habeas corpus for a monkey. The NhRP will soon submit an amicus brief in this case.
In April 2020, the Islamabad High Court in Pakistan recognized the rights and ordered the release of a long imprisoned Asian elephant named Kaavan from the Islamabad Zoo to a Cambodian sanctuary, where he now resides today. The decision repeatedly and favorably cites to the NhRP's US litigation, referring to Happy as an "inmate" of the Bronx Zoo.
In 2016, an Argentinian court ordered the release of an imprisoned chimpanzee named Cecilia from the Mendoza Zoo to a sanctuary in Brazil, recognizing her right to liberty in a case modeled on the NhRP's US litigation.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of Oregon, referring to the "ongoing litigation" brought by the NhRP that "seeks to establish legal personhood for chimpanzees," noted that "we do not need a mirror to the past or a telescope to the future to recognize that the legal status of animals has changed and is changing still[.]"
The NhRP will argue that the New York Court of Appeals can and should now put an end to the injustice of Happy's decades-long imprisonment at the Bronx Zoo and grant her freedom. As world-renowned elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole has written in support of Happy's elephant rights case, "Simply put, the Bronx Zoo's exhibit is too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant. Happy deserves to live the rest of her life at [a sanctuary] where the utmost care will be given to her individual needs and she'll have the space and conditions needed to heal and to form psychologically necessary bonds with other elephants."
Happy's case has been supported from the start by leading scientists, philosophers, habeas corpus scholars, legal experts, theologians, and the wider public throughout the country and the world, including nearly 1.4 million people who have signed a Change.org petition demanding her transfer to sanctuary.
About the Nonhuman Rights Project The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, legislation, and education to secure fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.
In 2015, the NhRP secured the world's first habeas corpus hearing on behalf of a nonhuman animal in its chimpanzee rights case on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who were used in locomotion research at Stony Brook University.
CASE NO./NAME: THE NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC. on behalf of HAPPY, Petitioner, v. JAMES J. BREHENY, in his official capacity as Executive Vice President and General Director of Zoos and Aquariums of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Director of the Bronx Zoo, and WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY (Appellate Case No. 2020-02581)