For Elizabeth Stein, a picture tells the story: Happy, the elderly elephant whose freedom she hopes to finally gain, stands alone, pressing her trunk against the wire fence encircling her one-acre enclosure at the Bronx Zoo.
“No one who cares about Happy would keep her there,” said Stein, 66, from Manhasset Hills.
Stein, a lawyer, now hopes to persuade the state’s highest court that intelligent, independent, family-oriented animals like Happy qualify for a habeas corpus order, a request to a judge to free an imprisoned person. wrongly dating back at least to 1215 in England. Magna Carta.
A move in Happy’s favor would be an astonishing victory that has eluded defenders for years, who increasingly blame the zoo for letting some residents down, noting for example that Gus, a polar bear, swam and dived from obsessively in his Central Park aquarium for years. to his depression.
“Sometimes it’s hard, when you’re so close to something, and it’s been a very long time… and in the back of your mind, you say ‘It will never happen’ – and it really does happen,” said Stein. , whose non-human clients have included whales and chimpanzees.
At the Bronx Zoo, Happy, now in his 50s, is receiving “excellent care” and “will continue to do so, along with all the animals here at the zoo,” said Jim Breheny, Bronx Zoo director and executive vice president . from zoos and aquarium to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The zoo released its statement in February 2020 after what, according to its tally, was the 24th judge to dismiss the case. This week, the zoo declined repeated requests for an interview or a photograph.
Opened in 1899, the zoo highlights the evolution of its role from exhibiting wildlife to conserving it in a popular Animal Planet show.
“His well-being has been ensured by our dedicated staff and all the expertise they bring to provide him with excellent care for over 40 years,” said Breheny.
Stein – whose mother, Marjorie Stein, 89, managed advertising for the North Shore Animal League of Port Washington for 30 years – says science shows animals look more like humans than previously thought.
Happy, she said, in 2006 became the first elephant to demonstrate what scientists call “self-awareness” when she recognized her mirror image.
New York’s highest court, possibly early next year, will hear Stein and zoo lawyers consider whether Happy should join 28 other elephants, all once held by circuses or zoos, at a sanctuary in 3,060 acres of Tennessee. Elephants in the wild, experts say, can travel 20 to 30 miles per day.
“It is not a question of human or not, it is a question of the intrinsic nature of the species,” said Stein.
Joyce Poole – who has studied African elephants for four decades, co-founded and co-led ElephantVoices, a San Francisco-based nonprofit – is one of more than 50 experts, scientists and advocates calling for the release of Happy .
Keeping elephants, said Poole, “prevented them from adopting normal, independent behavior and could lead to the development of arthritis, osteoarthritis, osteomyelitis, boredom and stereotypical behaviors.”
Stein said, “Based on everything I read, we have to see it differently. We cannot, in deciding whether these non-human animals should have the right to habeas corpus protection, we cannot say that they are not human. and does not deserve this right. ”
The state’s highest court rejects about 95% of the cases it is asked to review; Stein hopes concerns raised earlier by Associate Judge Eugene M. Fahey, who is retiring in December, will finally be answered.
Judging against Stein’s group – who had tried to persuade the court to send two northern chimpanzees, Tommy and Kiko, who the Nonhuman Rights Project said were being held in small cages at a sanctuary – Fahey stressed in 2018 that the court did not rule on the merits, which must “possibly” be dealt with. He asked, “Can a non-human animal have the right to be released from detention through a writ of habeas corpus?” Should such a being be treated as a person or as a property, essentially a thing?