Nonhuman Rights Project
Click on any of the states to see how we rate them in terms of future legal action for our nonhuman plaintiffs.

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New York Overview

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Overall Rating: 5-star

From a legal point of view New York is among the best states in the country for the kind of lawsuit the Nonhuman Rights Project will be filing – a writ of habeas corpus petitioning a judge to recognize a particular nonhuman animal as a “legal person” with the fundamental right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity.

New York also has various animals in captivity for whom we can demonstrate clear scientific findings showing they are self-aware and autonomous beings. Indeed, New York is home to one of the most celebrated of these – Happy the elephant, who was the first pachyderm to demonstrate self-awareness through the “mirror self-recognition test.”

All in all, New York is likely to be one of the first states for the Nonhuman Rights Project to file suit.

New York – the Legal Case

New York is a very good state for the Nonhuman Rights to bring a habeas corpus action on behalf of a nonhuman animal.

First, the state recognizes the continuing viability of the common law writ of habeas corpus. One of the hallmarks of the common law writ of habeas corpus is its flexibility and ability to adapt to new circumstances. Some states have made the writ completely statutory, thereby eliminating the possibility for judicial expansion of the writ. In others, it is unclear if the common law writ continues to exist. New York’s procedural habeas corpus statute expressly recognizes the availability of the common law writ and New York courts have continued to expand upon the scope of this writ. Numerous New York cases affirm that the right to the common law writ is absolute and can never be abrogated by legislation.

Second, New York case law permitted slaves to use the writ to challenge their status and establish their right to freedom. Some states, mostly in the south, did not allow slaves to use the writ as they were as property. Other states, mostly in the west, have no cases addressing the issue.

Third, New York adopted Lord Mansfield’s celebrated habeas corpus ruling Somerset v. Stewart, which declared that slavery could not exist except by positive (definitive) law, and that a slave was entitled to freedom pursuant to the common law writ of habeas corpus.

Fourth, New York allows for an appeal of an adverse habeas corpus decision. Some states do not allow a petitioner to appeal a habeas decision; their remedy is typically confined to bringing a subsequent habeas corpus writ. Ideally, our case will eventually be heard by the Court of Appeals.

Happy the Elephant

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In 2006, Happy the elephant stepped up to a jumbo-size mirror that had been placed in her enclosure at the Bronx Zoo – and made history.

The mirror had been in her enclosure for a few days so Happy could get used to seeing herself. But on this particular day, a white X had been painted on her forehead, just above her right eye. Would she take any notice? If so, what would she do?

As researcher Josh Plotnik, the graduate student who led this study, described it, Happy walked up to the mirror, backed away, and moved in and out of view of her reflection. Then she started raising her trunk slowly and began tentatively touching the X. Then, while continuing to move back and forth in front of the mirror, Happy would touch her head 47 times.

Plotnik and his colleagues were delighted. Happy had passed the “mirror self-recognition test.” To know that the person in the mirror is you, and to be able to act on that understanding, involves a level of complex cognition known as theory of mind, where you have a sense of self and can think about yourself from outside of yourself. Human babies don’t recognize themselves until they’re at least 18 months old. Dogs and cats often bark at or attack the “intruder”. Chimpanzees and dolphins have passed the test, as have certain birds. Happy was the first elephant to demonstrate this in front of a mirror.

You might think that she would be considered a celebrity at the Bronx Zoo. In fact, most visitors to the zoo never see her. There are two other elephants there, Patty and Maxine, but Happy doesn’t get on well with them.

Happy was born in Thailand in 1971. As an infant, she was captured from her family and shipped to a zoo in Florida and five years later to the Bronx Zoo. During all this time, she lived with a younger male, Grumpy, who was her best friend. One day, Patty and Maxine attacked Grumpy, and he died of his wounds. Happy has never gotten over this. The zoo brought in another elephant, Sammy, to keep her company, and they bonded well, but Sammy died of liver disease. Soon after, Happy had to be separated altogether from Patty and Maxine, and she now lives alone in a small barn.

According to the New York Post:

“Happy spends most of her time indoors in a large holding facility lined with elephant cages, which are about twice the length of the animals’ bodies. The public never sees this.”

Zoo officials responded that Happy is rotated in and out of public areas, but she still has no companion.

Now more than 40 years old, Happy needs to be retired from her solitary confinement and placed at a sanctuary where she can start a new life with new friends.

More about Happy’s life and the mirror self-recognition test is here.