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Laurence Tribe: Why we should free Happy the elephant, prisoner of the Bronx Zoo

L. Tribe: The just course is for courts to recognize Happy as a rights-holder (a person) and release her to an environment suited to her needs. Happy can recognize herself in the mirror, can we?

LAURENCE H. TRIBE: In 1971, seven Asian elephants were captured from the wild, imported to California, and sold for $800 each to a safari park… Today, only four of these elephants survive. One of them, ironically named Happy, has been imprisoned for the last 40 years at the Bronx Zoo. She is now 49 and lives in a small, barren space that experts have said cannot meet the needs of any elephant. Until 2002, the zoo also imprisoned Grumpy, euthanizing her after two other elephants attacked her.

Happy was the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the well-established mirror self-recognition test. In late 2018, she also became the first elephant to be the subject of a habeas corpus hearing. Happy’s case, brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project, will soon come before an appellate court in New York City. She has the chance to reclaim her dignity through recognition of her legal right to liberty and release to an elephant sanctuary.

Today, Happy is considered a “thing” with no rights that we as humans have any legal obligation to respect. That needs to change. The just course is for courts to recognize Happy as a rights-holder (in legalese, a person) and order her release to an environment suited to her needs… Imprisonment is the correct word to describe Happy’s solitary confinement in an environment where the only choice allowed her is the direction in which to stare from whichever part of the exhibit she’s made to stand in that day. Given all we know about who elephants are, it’s time to acknowledge this imprisonment is unlawful and to bring elephants into the circle of rights-holders…

Over a century ago, in 1903, humans used the newly harnessed power of electricity to kill an elephant in Luna Park at Coney Island for the public’s amusement. According to a news report at the time, Topsy died with “real benevolence in her eyes and kindness in her manner,” a detail that no doubt masks the torture unjustly inflicted on her but that will nonetheless surprise no one aware of the vast body of evidence documenting the undeniable sentience of these remarkable beings… Let 2020 be the year New York rejects elephants’ thing-hood, recognizes their right to liberty, and celebrates the power of the law to nudge societies toward more embracing visions of justice. Happy can recognize herself in the mirror — can we? SOURCE…


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