New York Court Denies Habeas Petition for Bronx Zoo Elephant

by John M. Simpson.

On February 18, 2020, a trial court in Bronx County, New York, denied a habeas corpus petition filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of “Happy,” a 48-year old Asian elephant residing in the Bronx Zoo.  Nonhuman Rights Project v. Breheny, No. 260441/19 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Bronx Cty. Feb. 18, 2020). The court ruled, based on binding New York precedent, that “Happy” is not a “person” for purposes of habeas corpus relief.

NhRP argued that its case did not involve animal protection or animal welfare and made no allegation that Happy was being maintained in illegal conditions.  Rather, the petition was based on the request that the court recognize the elephant’s alleged common law right to bodily liberty and order her immediate release:  “it is the fact that Happy is imprisoned at all, rather than her conditions of her [sic] imprisonment, that is unlawful.” Slip op. at 4.

In denying the petition, the court noted that NhRP had brought four other habeas cases in the New York courts seeking to release chimpanzees and, in all four instances, the courts denied habeas relief.  In particular, the court observed that, in Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 998 N.Y.S.2d 248 (3d Dept. 2014), the Third Department held that a chimpanzee is not a “person” entitled to fundamental rights:

Not surprisingly, animals have never been considered persons for the purposes of habeas corpus relief, nor have they been explicitly considered as persons or entities capable of asserting rights for the purpose of state or federal law … Petitioner does not cite any precedent — and there appears to be none — in state law, or under English common law, that an animal could be considered a “person” for the purposes of common-law habeas corpus relief.  In fact, habeas corpus relief has never been provided to any nonhuman entity. …

Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions.  In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights — such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus — that have been afforded to human beings.

Slip op. at 13 (quoting Lavery, 998 N.Y.S.2d at 251).

Even though the Happy case was not ostensibly framed by the petitioner as an animal welfare case, the trial court rehearsed the respective positions of the parties about Happy’s conditions. The petitioner stressed, based largely on the opinions of those studying wild elephants, what it contended were Happy’s cold and lonely conditions. The zoo, on the other hand, stressed the high quality of husbandry and veterinary care that Happy receives and the fact that a move to an elephant sanctuary would cause the animal to suffer substantial stress and would create a serious risk to her long-term health. The court stated that it was “extremely sympathetic to Happy’s plight and the NhRP’s mission on her behalf.” Nonetheless:

[I]n light of the Appellate Division, Third Department’s holding that animals are not “persons”, this Court is also constrained to find that Happy is not a “person” entitled to the writ of habeas corpus.

Id. at 16.

The Happy case is one of several matters brought by NhRP and other animal rights groups attempting to establish that animals are entitled to the same legal rights accorded to humans.  We have written on these cases in prior posts (here, here and here).  NhRP also brought a similar habeas action in the Connecticut courts on behalf of three elephants owned by a Connecticut exhibitor.  This effort has yet to succeed.  More on this issue is bound to come as NhRP has indicated that it will appeal the denial of Happy’s habeas petition.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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