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Is an Elephant a Person?

Do animals have the right to bodily autonomy? The plight of a very famous elephant living in captivity in The Bronx Zoo is bringing philosophical and legal issues of personhood to the limelight.

Happy is a 49-year-old elephant who was born in the wild in 1971. Shortly after, she and her six siblings were captured and sold into the animal entertainment industry in the United States. After many years serving as a circus performer, Happy was bought by The Bronx Zoo where she still lives, spending her days in a 1 1/2 acre compound where she is gazed upon by onlookers aboard the zoo’s monorail.

Since the death of her cellmate, Sammie, in 2004, Happy has lived alone in her enclosure with only the ability to hear the other elephant in an adjacent enclosure (they cannot live together due to the other elephant’s history of violent behavior towards others of her species). Elephants are extremely social and emotional animals, and they are also highly intelligent. Her current living standards–where she has survived for sixteen years–are incredibly detrimental to her emotional and mental well-being. For years, people have pleaded with The Bronx Zoo to let Happy go live out her remaining years in an animal sanctuary, but to no avail.

Animal rights groups, particularly the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), have taken Happy’s case to the courts and are pleading for her freedom and her own happiness that she be moved from the Bronx Zoo to an animal sanctuary. Interestingly enough, in order for Happy to be legally set free, NhRP has filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the New York Supreme Court. According to the Legal Information Institute, “A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (e.g. institutionalized mental patient) before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.”

If the New York Supreme Court files a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Happy the elephant, that means the court would grant Happy “personhood” under the law. This, of course, would have serious implications on the future of nonhuman animals held in confinement.

Supporters of Happy’s case, which span from members of animal welfare groups to world-renowned philosophers, agree that Happy deserves to live the remainder of her life in a healthy, enriching atmosphere with the ability to socialize with other elephants–something an appropriate animal sanctuary can provide and her current cemented enclosure at The Bronx Zoo simply cannot.

Last month, NhRP argued for Happy’s case before a panel of judges and are currently awaiting their decision as of December 3, 2020.

What do you think? Should Happy be granted personhood so she can be moved to an animal sanctuary? Please tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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2 responses to “Is an Elephant a Person?”

  1. Joan Sherman says:

    No. I believe since she has lived most her life in the Zoo, relocating her at this point in her life would be very extreme & a shock to her. It would be like moving your Grand Mom from her home to a Senior Living Facility. She would be well taken care of & have people (animals) around, but still a shock to her system. She needs to live out her years in the place she knows as home.
    I was raised by Senior Citizens, then worked with Seniors for over 23 years. You get to know what they want & need in life.

  2. No disrespect to you Ms. Sherman but there is a difference in her situations. She needs to be happy and playful with other elephant’s that can be her family. I live in a nursing home and can’t see my grown children like I or they want. She needs to be happy as her name says. Please let her have a new family who will give her that love and attachment she needs. Thank you so much.

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