Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) Seeks Appeal in New York’s Highest Court in Landmark Elephant Rights Case

Happy the elephant remains alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo while the NhRP urges the New York Court of Appeals to hear arguments in support of her right to liberty

Coral Springs, Florida, UNITED STATES

NEW YORK, Jan. 27, 2021 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a Motion for Permission to Appeal with the New York Court of Appeals today in the landmark Happy the elephant case. The move comes after New York’s First Department Appellate Court dismissed the case in December 2020.

Happy is a 50-year-old Asian elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo. In November, the exhibit closed for the winter, with Happy held in an industrial cement structure lined with windowless, barred cages (the zoo’s “elephant barn”) until the exhibit reopens in May. Happy made history in 2005 as the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test, and in December of 2018 she became the first elephant in the world to have a habeas corpus hearing after the Orleans Supreme Court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order. In early 2019, the Orleans Supreme Court transferred her case to the Bronx.

The NhRP looks forward to the possibility of appearing before the Court of Appeals, including Judge Eugene M. Fahey, who reflected on the legal issue of nonhuman animal rights in 2018 in response to two of the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases: “Does an intelligent nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as human beings do have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and enforced detentions visited on him or her? This is not merely a definitional question, but a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention … Can a nonhuman animal be entitled to release from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus? Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence a thing? … The question will have to be addressed eventually.”

Approval from at least two of the seven New York Court of Appeals judges is needed for the Motion to be granted.

“We welcome this opportunity to present our arguments to the Court as to why they should hear our appeal,” said Nonhuman Rights Project Founder and President Steven M. Wise. “The issues in Happy’s case are novel and deeply important at the local, state, national, and international levels, and the First Department committed numerous, serious legal errors in its decision to dismiss.”

This is the fourth time the NhRP has asked the Court of Appeals, which only hears about 5 percent of the cases that request to be heard, to decide whether its autonomous nonhuman animal client should be released pursuant to habeas corpus. As the NhRP writes in its Motion, “The Nonhuman Rights Project respectfully submits that the time to address this question [in the New York Court of Appeals] has arrived.”

The NhRP’s Motion also details how courts outside New York and around the world have begun to grapple with the broader issue of nonhuman animal rights, most famously in the cases of Kaavan the elephant and Sandra the orangutan, both of whom were imprisoned alone in zoos and released to sanctuaries.

If the Court of Appeals decides to hear Happy’s case, the NhRP would argue that it “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 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.”

The NhRP expects the Court of Appeals to rule on today’s Motion within 6 to 8 weeks. Lawyers for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo, have until January 29th to respond to the NhRP’s Motion.

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.

For more information, please visit

Press Contact:
Stacey Doss, APR

Lauren Choplin
Nonhuman Rights Project

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)
More About Happy’s Case

In addition to Dr. Joyce Poole and other experts in elephant behavior cognition and behavior, Happy’s elephant rights case has received support from experts in philosophy and habeas corpus, including world-renowned legal scholar and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe. In July 2020, Professor Tribe filed an amicus brief in support of the habeas corpus petition filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of Happy.

For over 10 hours spread across two days in September and October of 2019, the NhRP argued in the Bronx Supreme Court for recognition of Happy’s right to liberty and release to a sanctuary. Both the duration and substance of these hearings were unique for arguments on preliminary motions. Justice Alison Y. Tuitt scheduled a third court date in January 2020 to provide ample time to delve into the most pressing issues in Happy’s case, such as who counts as a legal person with rights and why Happy must be released to a sanctuary.        

Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, its grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum, drawing the support of influential public figures such as Queen guitarist Brian May, elected officials such as New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson who publicly endorsed sending Happy to a sanctuary, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. A petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has nearly 1.4 million signatures and continues to grow. In October 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on Happy’s plight, telling WNYC “something doesn’t feel right” about keeping Happy in the Bronx Zoo. In June 2019, Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Thanks for bringing Happy’s situation to my attention! The team and I are looking into what we can do.”

The oral argument in Happy’s case before the First Department has been viewed on YouTube almost 2,000 times. Since late 2018 alone, when this case began, there have been hundreds of items of media coverage in diverse local, state, national, and international media outlets about Happy and the NhRP’s efforts to free her.

The NhRP is urging Happy’s release to either The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California. To learn more about Happy and her case, visit her court case page.