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Catholic theologians support New York elephant rights case

They are the latest experts to join the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in calling for freedom and sanctuary for Happy the Bronx Zoo elephant

NEW YORK — Five Catholic theologians have submitted a brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of an elephant rights case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free an elephant from solitary confinement in the Bronx Zoo to an elephant sanctuary.

Drawing on their expertise in Catholic moral theology, ethics, animal ethics, ecological theology, theology and science, and bioethics, their amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief urges New York’s highest court to accept the NhRP’s recently filed appeal in Happy’s habeas corpus case and argues that “Happy is not a thing for us to confine, use, and put on display in a zoo (even in an attempt to produce a good outcome), but rather a particular kind of creature who God made to flourish in a particular way—a way some academics refer to as a telos. As we explain [in this brief], we believe Happy cannot flourish as this kind of creature while captive in the Bronx Zoo and that she would be significantly better able [to] become the kind of creature God made her to be in a sanctuary … Non-human animals belong to God, not to us. They are God’s creatures, not ours.”

Happy is a 50-year-old Asian elephant held alone in captivity at the Bronx Zoo. In November, the exhibit closed for the winter, with Happy held in an industrial cement structure lined with windowless, barred cages (the zoo’s “elephant barn”) until the exhibit reopens in May. Happy made history in 2005 as the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror test, and in December of 2018 she became the first elephant in the world to have a habeas corpus hearing after a New York trial court issued the NhRP’s requested habeas corpus order.

At the end of January, the NhRP filed a motion urging the Court of Appeals to hear arguments in support of Happy’s right to liberty under New York’s common law of habeas corpus after New York’s First Department Appellate Court dismissed Happy’s case. The NhRP’s motion argues that the issues in Happy’s case are novel and deeply important at the local, state, national, and international levels, and the First Department committed numerous, serious legal errors in its decision to dismiss.

The authors of the brief are:

  • John Berkman, PhD (University of Toronto)
  • Charles Camosy, PhD (Fordham University)
  • Allison Covey, PhD (Villanova University)
  • Celia Deane-Drummond, PhD (University of Notre Dame, University of Oxford)
  • Christopher Steck, SJ, PhD (Georgetown University)

Happy’s elephant rights case has also received support from experts in elephant behavior cognition and behavior; philosophy; and habeas corpus, including legal scholar and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe. In February of 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt issued a decision that was powerfully supportive of the NhRP’s arguments, concluding that Happy “is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.”

Alongside the NhRP’s litigation, its grassroots advocacy campaign on behalf of Happy has gained significant momentum, drawing the support of elected officials such as New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, influential public figures such as Queen guitarist Brian May, and animal advocates in New York and around the world. A petition calling for Happy’s release from solitary confinement has nearly 1.4 million signatures and continues to grow. In October 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio commented on Happy’s plight, telling WNYC “something doesn’t feel right” about keeping Happy in the Bronx Zoo.

The NhRP looks forward to the possibility of appearing before the Court of Appeals, including Judge Eugene M. Fahey, who reflected on the legal issue of nonhuman animal rights in 2018 in response to two of the NhRP’s chimpanzee rights cases: “Does an intelligent nonhuman animal who thinks and plans and appreciates life as human beings do have the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary cruelties and enforced detentions visited on him or her? This is not merely a definitional question, but a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention … Can a nonhuman animal be entitled to release from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus? Should such a being be treated as a person or as property, in essence a thing? … The question will have to be addressed eventually.”

Approval from at least two of the seven New York Court of Appeals judges is needed for the NhRP’s motion to be granted. The NhRP expects the Court of Appeals to rule on its motion within 5 to 7 weeks.

For a detailed timeline of Happy’s case, court filings, and decisions, visit this page. To download the above image of Happy, visit this page (credit: Gigi Glendinning).

CASE NO./NAME: THE NONHUMAN RIGHTS PROJECT, INC. on behalf of HAPPY, Petitioner, v. JAMES J. BREHENY, in his official capacity as Executive Vice President and General Director of Zoos and Aquariums of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Director of the Bronx Zoo, and WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY (Appellate Case No. 2020-02581)


Media Contact:
Lauren Choplin
[email protected]

About the Nonhuman Rights Project
The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, legislation, and education to secure fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Religion News Service or Religion News Foundation.