Animal Law

Happy the elephant's quest for personhood heads to top state court; rice and lakes also file suit

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An elephant in a zoo. Photo from Shutterstock.

New York’s top court will hear the case of Happy the elephant’s bid for personhood and release from the Bronx Zoo in New York City on May 18.

Lawyers for Happy want the court to recognize Happy as a legal person entitled to habeas corpus, enabling her release to an elephant sanctuary, the Wall Street Journal reports via How Appealing.

Happy is represented by the Nonhuman Rights Project and lawyer Steven Wise, who says getting the New York Court of Appeals to hear the case is a victory.

“The elephant is being imprisoned against her will,” Wise told the Wall Street Journal. “For more than 40 years, she has been kept as a prisoner.”

The lawsuit is among several efforts to provide legal rights for animals and natural entities, the article reports.

“In Florida,” the article says, “two lakes, a marsh and two streams sued to stop a development project. In Minnesota, manoomin, a type of wild rice, has filed a lawsuit to block an oil pipeline. Happy’s lawyers, the nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project, have represented whales, chimpanzees and dolphins who they argue have the complex cognitive abilities and autonomy to merit legal personhood.”

The wild rice case was filed in a tribal court in Minnesota to block water permits for an oil pipeline. The suit was based on a tribal law recognizing legally enforceable rights of a plant or an animal species, according to a press release. The state has responded with a suit filed in federal court against the tribe and the tribal court judge.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis declined to block the tribal court from hearing the case in September. In April, a tribal appeals court dismissed the suit, holding that the tribe couldn’t sue over a pipeline project happening off the reservation, Mother Jones reported.

The Florida case was filed after voters in Orange County, Florida, voted overwhelmingly to give rights to local bodies of water through a county water amendment. A local environmentalist is a co-plaintiff in the suit seeking to block permits for development, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

The state counters that a bill signed into law in June 2020, the Clean Waterways Act, preempts local government from granting legal rights to nature.

Other legislatures are acting to prevent such suits, according to the Wall Street Journal. In Missouri, a bill would prevent suits on behalf of nonhuman entities. And in Idaho, the legislature passed a bill that prevents nonhumans from gaining personhood. Idaho’s governor signed the bill into law March 31, according to Idaho bill tracking.

See also: “Judge takes first step to decide whether Happy the elephant should be released from Bronx Zoo” “Afternoon Briefs: 2 death-row inmates test positive for COVID-19; US attorney in Missouri will resign”

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