Sad Day For Happy The Elephant As Court Rules She’s Not A Legal Person

Happy will not be packing her trunk to live in a sanctuary just yet.


Dr. Beccy Corkill

Beccy is a custom content producer who holds a PhD in Biological Science, a Master’s in Parasites and Disease Vectors, and a Bachelor’s in Human Biology and Forensic Science.

Custom Content Manager

Happy currently lives in a 1-acre enclosure at Bronx Zoo
Image credit: JPL Designs / shutterstock

Happy is a 51-year-old Asian elephant, born in the wild in Asia and then captured and brought to the United States when she was 1 year old. Since 1977, she has been a resident at the Bronx Zoo, and she currently occupies a one-acre exhibit on her own.

Many people disagree that Happy should be in the Zoo. In fact, 1.4 million people from 90 different countries have signed a petition to try and get the Bronx Zoo to end her solitary confinement and free her to an elephant sanctuary. These sanctuaries allow elephants to roam freely with other elephants in a more natural environment. Like humans, it is known that elephants can develop emotional and physical problems when living in small and isolated spaces.


Along with this, there has been a large campaign using the #FreeHappy hashtag.

Under current animal welfare laws, it is acceptable to imprison an elephant in a small exhibit. But Happy is a bit different – experiments and studies found that Happy can demonstrate self-awareness through the mirror test in 2005. This test got her to repeatedly touch the white “X” on her forehead, while she looked into a large mirror.

This was part of the evidence that the Nonhuman Rights Project took to the courts to have a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of her imprisonment. Habeas corpus rights are a way for people to challenge any illegal confinements.

"She has an interest in exercising her choices and deciding who she wants to be with, and where to go, and what to do, and what to eat," project attorney Monica Miller told the Associated Press in May. "The zoo is prohibiting her from making any of those choices herself."


The Bronx Zoo disagrees with the Nonhuman Rights Project and that she is a well-cared for and respected elephant, that is not illegally imprisoned or a person. They also claim that the Nonhuman Rights Project "is using Happy the same way they have used animals in other cases in their effort to upend centuries of habeas corpus law and impose their own world view that animals should not be in zoos".

This week saw the conclusion of this court battle. In a 5-2 decision, the New York Court of Appeals rejected this lawsuit and said that she is not a "person" that is being subjected to illegal detention.  

"No one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion," the court ruling said, but "nothing in our precedent or, in fact, that of any other state or federal court, provides support for the notion that the writ of habeas corpus is or should be applicable to nonhuman animals."

Of course, the Nonhuman Right Project is not happy. "This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in a Bronx Zoo exhibit," they said in a statement, "It's also a loss for everyone who cares about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values and principles of justice – autonomy, liberty, equality, and fairness –and ensuring our legal system is free of arbitrary reasoning and that no one is denied basic rights simply because of who they are."


There is some dissent to the ruling and Judge Jenny Rivera said: “A gilded cage is still a cage. Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity.”


  • tag
  • elephants,

  • animals,

  • ethics,

  • zoos,

  • policy