Happy The Elephant May Get A Visit From Local Judge In Pachyderm Personhood Case
Happy the elephant might soon receive a judicial visit, thanks to animal rights activists who continue to argue that the pachyderm is deeply depressed. Last October, the Nonhuman Rights Project brought a lawsuit against The Bronx Zoo, contending that Happy’s “autonomy is thwarted daily” thanks to her confinement in an over-small pen for one. At a hearing on Monday, Judge Alison Tuitt seemed somewhat skeptical of that assertion, pointing out that the 48-year-old titan’s one-acre enclosure hadn’t taken a noticeable toll on her wellbeing.
“She’s lived that way for decades,” Tuitt said, according to the NY Post. “Her health hasn’t declined.” When NhRP attorney Steven Wise countered that, if the judge showed up on Happy’s doorstep, she would find a downtrodden animal, Tuitt reportedly responded: “Perhaps we will all go see Happy.”
The NhRP has been lobbying for Happy’s legal personhood status — basically, arguing that she is an autonomous being whose rights must be considered — and that she is being illegally held in inhumane conditions. Elephants are herd-minded creatures, and Happy hasn’t had a buddy since the mid-aughts.
In 2002, catastrophe struck down her companion, Grumpy: the zoo moved the pair in with two other pachyderms, Patty and Maxine, who charged and fatally injured Grumpy. The zoo subsequently re-situated Happy with an elephant named Sammy, whom Happy reportedly took to mothering. Everything was gravy until 2006, when the zoo discovered Sammy had severe liver disease and euthanized her. Zoo administrators announced they’d be ending the elephant program, due to complicated dynamics within the dwindling herd, and the belief that it would be “inhumane” to keep an elephant all by its lonesome.
But, without any incoming elephants to keep Happy company, that’s what the NhRP believes has now happened. Happy lives in the same enclosure as Patty, only the two colossi are separated by a partition, to preclude the possibility of a repeat charging.
According to the NhRP, Happy’s relatively solitary confinement should be considered grounds to move her to an animal sanctuary, where she would have more space to tromp around at her leisure. “To cram an elephant into one acre of land, it’s like Attica state prison,” Wise reportedly told Tuitt, who seemed unconvinced.
The Zoo, you see, maintains that it has never kept anything but the closest tabs on Happy, and that she gets “visual, tactile, olfactory and auditory contact with … Patty” that keeps either elephant from feeling lonely. “Despite all that has been said about her from outside critics, she is quite content and is evaluated frequently by the people who know her best including the team of veterinarians that have cared for her for decades and the animal care staff who interact with Happy for hours each day,” reads a statement from the Zoo.
Happy — by all accounts an especially intelligent elephant who is able to recognize herself in a mirror — does not like to have her environment disturbed, nor does she appear to want more elephant contact than she’s getting, the Zoo argues:
The issue with Happy is that she, as an individual, is subordinate in nature and has always been on the bottom of any social grouping of elephants of which she has been a part. Happy has consistently demonstrated that she is more comfortable with her keepers, and with safe barriers between her and other elephants to keep from being bullied. The stress she felt whenever in the company of more dominant animals had a negative impact on her welfare. When one of our elephants, Maxine, was euthanized last November due to advanced cancer, we re-introduced Happy to Maxine’s companion, Patty. We hoped with the change in group structure and dynamics the elephants might look to each other for companionship. We allowed the elephants to be together in the same physical space without a protective barrier for a week, where they were constantly monitored. Unfortunately, neither animal was comfortable in the company of the other and both elephants experienced different, yet obvious, levels of stress.
The Zoo believes moving Happy would cause her unnecessary trauma, but in the past, other animal advocacy groups — citing small, solitary enclosures and exposure to the elements — have argued that The Bronx Zoo ranks among the nation’s worst elephant custodians. But as Tuitt reportedly emphasized at Monday’s hearing, Happy hasn’t demonstrated her displeasure with a hunger strike, as sad elephants often will. So, yes, maybe the only way to gauge her emotional wellbeing is to go pay her a visit, perhaps even give her a pat if that sort of thing is allowed, just to remind her she’s doing a great job.