This week, the New York Court of Appeals rejected a bid for writ of habeas corpus from an unusual petitioner: Happy, a 51-year-old, female Asian elephant, currently living in captivity at the Bronx Zoo.
In its 5-2 opinion, the court held that habeas corpus only protects against the unlawful and indefinite imprisonment of human beings, and that Petitioner, the Nonhuman Rights Project, could not use the legal mechanism to bust Happy out of the zoo and into an elephant sanctuary.
Though the outcome of the case was not particularly surprising, it did feature some surprising elements—the first of which was the court’s willingness to hear the case at all.
Because the New York Court of Appeals only grants certiorari to a fraction of the cases that petition to be heard, the judges’ agreement to hear Happy’s case was notable. Also notable were the two separate, passionate dissents issued by Judges Wilson and Riviera. Judge Wilson invoked the history of habeas, pointing out it was used frequently to contest the detention of enslaved persons at a time when they were considered non-human, legal property. Judge Riviera focused on Happy’s cognitive abilities and the denial of her opportunity to live an autonomous life. Both judges agreed that modern society should adjust its way of thinking when it comes to detaining highly intelligent, emotive animals, such as elephants.
The concept of legal personhood, though yet to be expanded to non-humans in the context of habeas corpus, does have precedent. In the United States, the most famous example is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that corporations can be considered “persons” in certain circumstances. The Court held that as legal persons, corporations are guaranteed rights usually considered as pertaining to individuals, such as free speech under the First Amendment.
There are also other, less well-known examples of non-humans being recognized as persons. Several countries (including the United States) have awarded personhood to natural features such as rivers, and some countries have gone as far as to extend personhood to non-human, intelligent animals (for example, dolphins have been officially recognized as “non-human persons” in India since 2013).
Despite their court loss, the Nonhuman Rights Project did not seem discouraged. They called the ruling a “tremendous victory” and pointed out that, though it was “the first time an English-speaking jurisdiction had heard a case demanding a legal right for a nonhuman animal[,] . . . it will be far from the last.”
Unhappily for Happy, the American legal system does not appear ready for such an elephantine expansion of habeas rights quite yet.