Captive Elephant in Court

24. October 2018

On October 3, 2018 Andrea Morris published a fascinating article in Forbes Magazine, entitled “Self-Aware Elephant Lawyers Up”.  She describes the sort of HAPPY, a 47 year old female elephant in solitary captivity for more than 10 years at the Bronx Zoo and the efforts of the NhRP to have her transferred to a sanctuary. The Nonhuman Rights Project’s legal  team, Jane Goodall and Sten Wise filed a petition with the New York Supreme Court for habeas corpus on behalf of Happy. While it is difficult for any court, or the Bronx Zoo in this case,  to deny that Happy is being held captive without her agreement and without having committed any criminal act, the defense for continued incarceration is based on two arguments: That she is not really incarcerated, but in a great environment that ensures her happiness and that she is not entitled to habeas corpus, because she is an animal and not a human being with “person status”.


Happy the elephant has lived alone for more than 10 years at the Bronx Zoo. PHOTO: JACKIE MOLLOY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

To prove that the Bronx zoo environment deprives Happy of most that makes her an elephant, just like prisons tend to deprive humans of their human nature, is not too difficult. To breakdown the barrier between humans and other animals to show that Happy is indeed a feeling, intelligent and sensible creature entitled to person status is another matter. Once granted person status the legal precedent would expose human treatment of most animals as a form of inhumane slavery with enormous economic consequences. The NhrRP courageously will have to convince the court that they must free Happy, because having passed the mirror test she does have a sophisticated degree of self-awareness akin to our own.

In reality, even without the self-recognition mirror test, there is a ton of published evidence collected by behavioral scientists over many decades, clearly showing that elephants have many qualities that would should entitle them to person status. According to such experts on elephant biology as Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole,  Caitlin O’Connell, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Carol Buckley, to name a few, elephants are intelligent, social, emotional, self-aware and compassionate creatures. Their sophisticated communication skills and ability to recognize and remember a great number of individuals, make it possible for them to live peacefully within complex immediate and extended family structures. The basic family unit, consisting of a mother and her daughters, is most often lead  by the oldest female based on her long experience, which could be essential for the survival of the family group. Beyond that, elephants seldom attempt to improve their status within the group, unlike many primates. Consequently there is very little stress within a family group. Left alone, wild elephants lead relatively peaceful lives.


Asian elephant family in the wild. Photo credit: envi1

In addition, elephants are one of the few animals perfectly capable of establishing  special rapports with individual member of other species, such us humans ,  distinguishing between friendly and compassionate individuals and those that are dangerous.

Tragically, the courts so far have ignored the readily available body of evidence that would give elephants and other intelligent species human-like rights. But the general public is beginning to see that sticking  an  elephant like Happy into a zoo with an overall area smaller than what an Elephant needs to lead a normal life,  without a family to enjoy, without the freedom to decide how to to spend her day, in short, depriving her of all that makes her an elephant, is a form of cruelty that has no other justification than exploiting another species because we can.  Fortunately,  the response to public pressure and the resulting loss of revenue, is slowly improving the lives of some wild animals in captivity.