State's high court weighs human rights for elephant

Associated Press In this Oct. 2, 2018 file photo, a Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy strolls inside the zoo's Asia Habitat.

ALBANY — The New York Farm Bureau has taken a legal step to convince the state's highest court that extending a basic human right to an elephant could destroy the state's agricultural industry.

The advocacy group for farmers stated its position as it waded into litigation pitting an animal rights group against the Bronx Zoo.

The elephant in the room, so to speak, is Happy, an elephant that has lived for more than 40 years at the zoo. During her working years, Happy gave rides to school kids, while wearing a polka dot dress at times. A native of Thailand, Happy is retired from her duties of interacting with zoo visitors, and now lives alone in a one-acre enclosure, not far from a second elephant named Patty.

In oral arguments before the state Court of Appeals on Wednesday, a lawyer for the Nonhuman Rights Project sought the release of Happy to a sanctuary, arguing the confinement at the zoo is illegal and in violation of the elephant's rights.

The Farm Bureau, in an amicus brief provided to the court, is backing the zoo in the litigation. The Farm Bureau argued that granting a human right to Happy, an animal named for one of the characters in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," would have far-reaching repercussions on farms with livestock.

"Enabling animal rights groups to bring habeas petitions for the release of nonhuman animals would have a disastrous economic, social, and emotional impact," the Farm Bureau said in its brief.

The Nonhuman Rights Project contends Happy is eligible to get a legal order "liberating" her from the zoo because she has demonstrated she has autonomy, a human characteristic.

The elephant has demonstrated that, before a mirror, she is capable of self-recognition and is self-aware, according to organization. It has submitted affidavits of five experts on elephant cognition. They say the human-like cognitive characteristics of elephants include empathy, intentional communication, learning, memory and awareness of death.

The lawyer for NHP, Monica L. Miller, said while the case was not about improving conditions at the Bronx Zoo, the facility has experienced an incident where two elephants, Patty and Maxine, attacked a fourth elephant named Grumpy. A fence has since been erected to separate Happy and Patty, she added.

"They both deserve better and the common law would allow for it," Miller said. "The court has the power and the authority to grant Happy the freedom she really deserves."

Justices peppered the lawyers with questions about their respective arguments. Miller was asked by Justice Rowan Wilson whether the needs of a person using a horse for transportation should be balanced with "the right of that horse to some form of liberty."

The Bronx Zoo's lawyer, Kenneth Manning of Buffalo, said the Nonhuman Rights Project offered no argument that Happy was living in "unsuitable conditions," contending there was no basis for the court to liberate the elephant from her situation.

"There's no illegal detainment, and they're not seeking better welfare for the elephant, at least according to the pleadings," said Manning, whose client is the zoo operator, the Wildlife Conservation Society.

A decision from the Court of Appeals is expected to be issued next month.

A lower court warned in its ruling that conferring legal rights to a species other than homo sapiens "would lead to a labyrinth of questions that common-law processes are ill-equipped to answer."

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