Richard Collins: Is an animal a 'legal person' with rights?

Should an elephant be deemed a 'legal person' and released from 'solitary confinement'
Richard Collins: Is an animal a 'legal person' with rights?

Legal attempts have been made to change the legal status of animals .

Donald Trump has appointed 200 federal judges to courts in the US; 24% of active judges there are his nominees. They were chosen, presumably, for their agreement with his outlook and opinions. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and making coal 'great again', the Lord of Misrule is no friend to conservationists. He has rowed back on environmental-protection measures wherever he could. The legacy of judicial appointments in the litigious US does not augur well for wildlife. President-elect Joe Biden's administration faces an uphill battle to repair the damage.

One of the more unusual cases awaiting adjudication concerns Happy, a 49-year-old female Asian elephant. She has lived alone in a half-hectare compound at Bronx Zoo for 14 years. Earlier this month, the New York State appellate division of the supreme court was asked to order her transfer to more suitable accommodation.

Our columnist Richard Collins.
Our columnist Richard Collins.

The Non-human Rights Project (NhRP) team, which brought the application, argued that Happy should be deemed a 'legal person' and released from 'solitary confinement'. "This court has the duty to safeguard and uphold the fundamental, common-law liberty interest of autonomous beings," lawyers submitted. "As Happy is an autonomous being, this court must recognise her right to bodily liberty, protected by habeas corpus, and order her freed." They want her sent to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where domesticated elephants can "live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being".

The sanctuary, however, has disassociated itself from the application. "The Bronx Zoo believes it is best for Happy to remain in familiar surroundings, with the people she knows, relies on, and trusts," the sanctuary says. The zoo rejects claims that she is lonely or distressed, and the keepers fear that she will be bullied by other elephants if sent elsewhere.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit. The NhRP is appealing.

Happy is not the only animal whose legal status the organisation wants changed. A previous attempt, although unsuccessful, provided a glimmer of hope that it might succeed, eventually. It concerned Tommy, a 26-year-old chimpanzee, being kept alone in a shed on the outskirts of New York City. Tommy is a retired animal film actor. In 2013, the New York State supreme court was told that chimps are highly intelligent, self-aware creatures and that Tommy should be regarded as a person.

Happy the elephant lives alone within Bronx Zoo.
Happy the elephant lives alone within Bronx Zoo.

The judges threw out the case, but the NhRP raised Happy's petition, and those of three other chimps, with the New York court of appeals.

Seventeen philosophers were commissioned to prepare a brief in support of the legal personhood of the animals, but the application was dismissed. However, one of the judges, Eugene Fahey, submitted a dissenting opinion. He wrote that "... chimpanzees and humans exist on a continuum of living beings... the issue whether a non-human animal has a fundamental right to liberty, protected by the writ of habeas corpus, is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us... while it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a 'person', there is no doubt that it is not a mere thing."

Eugene Fahey, due to retire next year, may not be Mr Trump's kind of judge.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up