Denial of Habeas Relief for Bronx Zoo Elephant Affirmed on Appeal

On December 17, 2020, a New York intermediate appellate court rejected an attempt by the animal rights organization, Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), to obtain habeas corpus relief for a 48-year old Asian elephant named “Happy,” who resides at the Bronx Zoo.  In re Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Breheny, Case No. 2020-02581 (Sup. Ct. App. Div. 1st Dept. Dec. 17, 2020).

In a terse decision, the court affirmed the order of the court below which had granted the respondents’ motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  The appellate court’s decision rested squarely on an earlier decision in a case, also brought by NhRP, in which the court had thoroughly rejected a virtually identical effort to obtain habeas relief for two chimpanzees.  In re Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 152 A.D.3d 73, 54 N.Y.S.3d 392 (1st Dept. 2017), leave denied, 31 N.Y.3d 1054 (2018).  In the Lavery case, the appellate court specifically held:

The gravamen of petitioner’s argument that chimpanzees are entitled to habeas relief is that the human-like characteristics of Chimpanzees render them “persons” for purposes of CPLR article 70.  This position is without legal support or legal precedent.

152 A.D.3d at 76-77 (emphasis added).  In the “Happy” case, the court was more emphatic:

The common-law writ of habeas corpus does not lie on behalf of Happy, the elephant at issue in this proceeding. … We decline to overrule any of our alternative holdings in Lavery, which petitioner erroneously refers to as “dicta.”  Under Lavery, the writ of habeas corpus is limited to human beings. …  A judicial determination that species other than homo sapiens are “persons” for some juridical purposes, and therefore have certain rights, would lead to a labyrinth of questions that common-law processes are ill-equipped to answer.  As we said in Lavery, the decisions of whether and how to integrate other species into legal constructs designed for humans is a matter “better suited to the legislative process.”

Case No. 2020-02581, slip op. at 2-3 (citations omitted).

As we have reported earlier, this is just one in series of unsuccessful efforts by NhRP and other animal rights groups to get courts to recognize animals as persons with the same rights as human beings.  Similar efforts by NhRP to seek habeas relief on behalf elephants have been uniformly unsuccessful in the Connecticut courts.  Not surprisingly, the NhRP announced on its website that it will seek review of Happy’s case in the New York Court of Appeals.