New York’s Highest Court Asked To Rule Elephant As Rights-Holder, Entitled To Justice, Freedom

March 31, 2022, New York, NY–A group of 27 law professors from across the United States and Canada have submitted a brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of the legal personhood and right to liberty of an elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo.

Writing in support of a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free Happy the elephant to a sanctuary and challenge elephants’ legal status as “things” with no rights, the amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief draws in part on the law professors’ special expertise in animal law to argue that “developments in law, ethics, and science warrant the inclusion of at least some nonhuman animals, including Happy, in the community of legal rights-holders who are entitled to justice.”

On May 18, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals will hear Happy’s case, which The Atlantic has called “the most important animal-rights case of the 21st century.” Other experts who have submitted briefs in support of Happy’s legal personhood and right to liberty include philosopher Martha Nussbaum and legal scholar Laurence Tribe.

The law professors join the NhRP in asserting that nonhuman animals like Happy have their own fundamental interests–for example, in their individual liberty–that should be protected by legal rights under the values of New York common law (judge-made law that is meant to evolve with social norms). They also maintain that nonhuman animals are already rights-holders under anti-cruelty statutes and other laws. The professors critique appellate court decisions in the NhRP’s New York chimpanzee rights cases that cited social contract theory–and the erroneous idea that one has to be able to bear legal duties in order to have legal rights–to deny rights to nonhuman animals.

​”Legal belonging extends not only to the archetypal humans of social contract theory,” they conclude, “but also to those entities–human and nonhuman–who have secured the protection of their liberties through the enactment of legal protections or who are entitled to such protections by virtue of who they are.”

Happy the Elephant. Image Credit Gigi Glend.

Happy the Elephant. Image Credit – Gigi Glend

Matthew Liebman, Chair of the Justice for Animals Program at the University of San Francisco School of Law, and Karen Bradshaw, Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, drafted and coordinated the brief.

The NhRP argues that the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the zoo, have unlawfully deprived Happy of her freedom, imprisoning her alone in an exhibit that is “too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant,” as elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole has written in support of Happy’s release. As The New Yorker explored in a recent feature, Happy is the first elephant in the world to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test and the first to have habeas corpus hearings to determine the lawfulness of her imprisonment after a New York trial court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order.

Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, its grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum and drawn the support of such influential public figures as Queen guitarist Brian May and actress Mia Farrow, former New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. Meanwhile, a petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has over a million signatures and continues to grow.

In February of 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt issued a decision that was powerfully supportive of the NhRP’s arguments, concluding that Happy “is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”

When the New York Court of Appeals hears Happy’s case, it will become the highest court of an English-speaking jurisdiction to consider a habeas corpus case brought on behalf of someone other than a human being.

To read and download the brief, including a complete list of signatories, visit this page. For a detailed timeline of Happy’s case, court filings, and decisions, visit this page. To download the above image of Happy, visit this page (credit: Gigi Glendinning).

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)

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.

Banner Image: Rally For Happy’s Freedom August 2019. Image Credit – Lukas Greyson

NonHuman Rights Project

The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for nonhuman animals. Our groundbreaking work challenges an archaic, unjust legal status quo that views and treats all nonhuman animals as “things” with no rights. As with human rights, nonhuman rights are based on fundamental values and principles of justice such as liberty, autonomy, equality, and fairness. All of human history shows that the only way to truly protect human beings’ fundamental interests is to recognize their rights. It’s no different for nonhuman animals.

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