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New York Court Says: An Elephant is Not a Human

NY High Court says Happy the elephant is, in fact, an elephant.

By:  |  June 24, 2022  |    617 Words

An elephant in Bronx Zoo (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Happy is an elephant currently living in the Bronx Zoo – her home of 45 years. The Asian-born pachyderm has been the subject of an animal rights movement inspired by the Nonhuman Rights Project. The group argued that Happy should be able to choose who to hang out with, what to eat, and when to eat it. They also claimed that she should have a bigger home than the one-acre plot she has lived on for four decades. The group took a legal case to the New York state high court in an attempt to give Happy better rights. To accomplish that, Happy’s champions wanted to change her species to human.

It was a battle royale between the zoo and Nonhuman Rights Project. In the end, the zoo won, as this month the court decided not to legally label Happy as a human being.

Human Rights vs. Animal Rights?


(Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

An elephant is obviously not a human – but what rights should animals have? Often, that is decided by the people and the culture in the animal’s location. Creatures are treated differently across the world, for better or worse.

But how do human rights differ from animal rights?

The United Nations described human rights this way:

“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”

What about animal rights? There isn’t as much agreement about what those mean, or if animals even have rights. Some people suggest animals shouldn’t be kept in zoos or used by humans at all, even for food. Others say that goes too far, and that as long as animals are treated fairly and humanely, it’s alright to use them for human benefit.

The Ruling

Sponsors and supporters of the Bronx Zoo made their case clear to the court: A win for this one elephant would open the doors to legal protests on behalf of all animals. And the court agreed. Five out of seven judges decided to keep Happy assigned to elephant status. They said that calling her a human would “call into question” many things we do with animals, such as “pet ownership, the use of service animals, and the enlistment of animals in other forms of work.”

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore explained that “while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion,” legally accepting the animal as a person “would have an enormous destabilizing impact on modern society.”

Two dissenting justices, Rowan Wilson and Janney Rivera, favored giving human rights to Happy. They believed that Happy should have those rights. Judge Wilson wrote, “an environment that is unnatural to her and that does not allow her to live her life” violated basic rights – animal or otherwise. Wilson continued, “Her captivity is inherently unjust and inhumane. It is an affront to a civilized society, and every day she remains a captive — a spectacle for humans — we, too, are diminished.”

The founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Steven Wise, vowed to continue the group’s quest: “We will take a really close look at why we lost, and we’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen again to the extent that we can.”

What do LN GenZ readers think about animal rights versus human rights?

Test your knowledge – try an online quiz based on this article!

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