Can an Elephant Be Considered a Person?

On Wednesday, May 18, the New York Court of Appeals examined the question: Can an elephant be considered a person under the law?

The question arises in the context of a habeas corpus proceeding, a legal proceeding used to determine whether a person’s imprisonment is legally justified. Advocates at the Nonhuman Rights Project argue that Happy, an Asian elephant housed at the Bronx Zoo, should be moved from her “one-acre prison” to an elephant sanctuary. They assert that Happy should be considered a person under the law who deserves to choose “who she wants to be with, and where to go, and what to do, and what to eat.”

Attorneys for the Bronx Zoo say that Happy is not illegally imprisoned and is “respected as the magnificent creature she is.” Happy was born in the wild in the 1970s. She was captured in Asia and brought to the United States as a one-year-old, arriving at the Bronx Zoo in 1977. Court filings indicate that Happy is able to engage in many natural activities at the zoo, such as swimming and foraging. 

There have never been charges of elephant abuse brought against the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages the Bronx Zoo. In 2006, the zoo announced that it would not acquire any more elephants. Happy lives in an enclosure next to the zoo’s other remaining elephant, Patty.

According to the Nonhuman Rights Project, Happy was the first elephant to pass a self-awareness indicator test by repeatedly touching a white “X” on her forehead that she could see in the reflection of a mirror. The Project’s attorneys argue that regardless of how Happy is treated, she must be released because her right to “bodily liberty” is being violated.

While asking questions of both sides, at least one judge questioned the future implications of deciding that Happy is “a person.” According to a brief by the New York Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups, such a decision would potentially pave the way for other animals, such as pigs, cows, and chickens, to be considered people. If this were the case, said the National Association for Biomedical Research, research costs could rise. A brief filed by state and national associations representing veterinarians indicated that the lawsuit places animals’ personhood rights above their welfare.

A brief in support of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s stance submitted by Catholic academic theologians suggested that the case presented “a key cultural crossroads” for how animals should be treated.

The court is expected to make a decision in the next few months.

Additional Reading

Happy is an Asian elephant. But can she also be considered a person?, NPR (May 18, 2022)

Happy the elephant’s quest for personhood heads to top state court; rice and lakes also file suit, ABA Journal (May 13, 2022)

Happy Days? The Bronx Zoo’s star attraction is a tough case for Court of Appeals and court of public opinion, Bronx Times (May 4, 2022)

Image Credit: Liam Jowett /