Is an elephant a person? A New York court is set to decide

Lawyers are challenging Happy the elephant’s lone detention at the Bronx Zoo on the grounds of her ‘personhood’. Should she start packing her trunk?

Name: Happy.

Age: 49.

Appearance: Grey and wrinkled.

Oh well, it happens to us all in time. Happy has always been grey and wrinkled – she’s an elephant.

How funny! I thought we were talking about a person. Perhaps we are.

Didn’t you just say that Happy was an elephant? Can an elephant not also be a person?

No, but it could be two people in a costume, I suppose. What I mean is, doesn’t an elephant deserve to be treated as a person in the eyes of the law?

Are you trying to get this elephant a driving licence or something? Just her freedom.

Is Happy in prison? No, Happy is in a one-acre enclosure in the Bronx Zoo, but her lawyer, Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), has gone to court to spring her.

What sort of case is he presenting? A long one. Wise first filed a writ of habeas corpus – demanding recognition of Happy’s personhood and challenging her unlawful detention – in 2018. The New York State supreme court will make a final decision in the next few weeks.

How does one go about establishing an elephant’s personhood? The NhRP argues that Happy is a highly intelligent and self-aware being.

I’m pretty impressed that an elephant even knew enough to get a lawyer. Happy’s legal team is self-appointed, but she is the first elephant ever to pass the mirror test.

The mirror test? Looking in a mirror, Happy was able to work out that she was seeing her own reflection, and not another elephant. This is something chimps and dolphins can also do.

How is the whole personhood for animals movement going? Not great so far – Wise’s attempts to liberate three chimps and three other elephants have been unsuccessful. But Happy’s case could change all that.

How did such a smart elephant end up in captivity in the first place? Born in the wild in 1971, Happy was captured along with six other calves – all named after the dwarves in Snow White. Happy and Grumpy were sent to the Bronx Zoo in 1977, but Grumpy was later put down after being attacked by two other captive elephants.

And what happens after liberation? Does Happy get a flat somewhere? The idea is to send her to a sanctuary where she can be with other elephants.

Do say: “If you’re Happy and you know it, you’ve got rights.”

Don’t say: “Congratulations, Happy! Let’s get you registered to vote.”

The GuardianTramp

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