New York’s Highest Court Declares that Elephants are NOT “Legal Persons”

Today, in a major blow to animal rights and nonhuman animal “personhood” advocates, the New York Court of Appeals, in a 5-2 decision, rejected the effort by the NonHuman Rights Project (NhRP) to employ the common law writ of habeas corpus to free an Asian elephant named “Happy” from the Bronx Zoo.    In re Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Breheny, No. 52 (N.Y. June 14, 2022).  The case caps a long line of baseless efforts by NhRP in New York to obtain habeas relief for animals.

Despite petitioner’s efforts to show that Happy is an autonomous animal, the Court ruled that the common law writ of habeas corpus is not available to animals:

[D]espite the awesome power of the writ of habeas corpus and its enduring use throughout the centuries, no court of this State—or any other—has ever held the writ applicable to a nonhuman animal. 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.  The selective capacity for autonomy, intelligence, and emotion of a particular nonhuman animal species is not a determinative factor in whether the writ is available as such factors are not what makes a person detained qualified to seek the writ.  Rather, the great writ protects the right to liberty of humans because they are humans with certain fundamental liberty rights recognized by law Nonhuman animals are not, and never have been, considered “persons” with a right to “liberty” under New York law.  [Slip op. at 8-9].

The Court noted that “legal personhood is often connected with the capacity, not just to benefit from the provision of legal rights, but also to assume legal duties and social responsibilities.”  Animals, however, smart they may be, “cannot . . . individually nor collectively — be held legally accountable or required to fulfill obligations imposed by law.”  [Slip op. at 11].

The majority rejected the analyses of the two dissenting opinions noting that “the dissents are long on historical discourse but woefully short of any cogent legal analysis identifying any recognizable source of proclaimed liberty right or so-called fundamental right to be free that they seek to bestow upon autonomous nonhuman animals.”  [Slip op. at 9-10].  In particular, the majority rejected the dissents’ attempt to compare the instant habeas petition on behalf of an elephant to abused women and children and enslaved persons.  Id. at 10.

The Court also shot down a favorite animal rights argument:  since corporations are persons, why can’t animals be persons?  The short answer is that corporations are “legal constructs through which human beings act” and corporations, “unlike nonhuman animals, bear legal duties in exchange for legal rights.”  [Slip op. at 11].

The Court noted that embracing NhRP’s legal theory “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”  [Slip op. at 12].  Followed to its logical conclusion, petitioner’s position

would call into question the very premises underlying pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.  With no clear standard for determining which species are entitled to access the writ, who has standing to bring such claims on a nonhuman animal’s behalf, what parameters to apply in determining whether a confinement is “unjust,” and whether “release” from a confinement otherwise authorized by law is feasible or warranted in any particular case, courts would face grave difficulty resolving the inevitable flood of petitions.  [Slip op. at 13].

At bottom, “while this litigation may invite consideration by others of questions that are the appropriate subject of ethical, moral, religious, and philosophical debate, the legal issue presented is straightforward. The use of habeas corpus as a vehicle to extend legal personhood beyond living humans is not a matter for the courts.”  [Slip op. at 15].

The New York Court of Appeals is the highest tribunal in that state.  This decision should put an end to NhRP’s campaign in New York of hounding animal owners with habeas petitions, as any further efforts along those lines would clearly be running afoul of the decision of New York’s highest court.

The absurd consequences that would follow from what NhRP was arguing in this case are obvious.  NhRP tried to make its position palatable by focusing on an Asian elephant, one of nature’s most intelligent and charismatic creatures.  However, the concepts of “autonomy” and “sentience” — the predicates for recognizing animal rights — are very nebulous.  Indeed, in a meta analysis of the literature on evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans conducted for the British Parliament in connection with the recent passage of the so-called Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act, the London School of Economics found substantial evidence that some shrimps are “sentient.”  So where would that lead — habeas petitions to outlaw shrimp cocktails?   With the Happy the Elephant decision, hopefully not.

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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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