Freeing Happy: The Nonhuman Rights Project vs. The Bronx Zoo

There’s a very important elephant at the Bronx Zoo named Happy. She’s from Asia, roughly 49 years old, and has been a resident of the zoo since the mid 1970’s. In 2005, she proved that elephants have an awareness of self, a higher intelligence never proven before. In Douglas H. Chadwick’s book, The Fate of the Elephant, he writes about elephants who were able to open the locks of their pens, only to lock them again before their keeper returned. In one passage from the book, we read what one expert observes, that elephants “live in families, learn from each other, look after their ill and elderly, mourn their dead and communicate through a vocabulary of audible and subsonic sounds of remarkable sophistication.”  

Nonhuman Rights Project presents the: “Rally for Freedom for Happy” on August 10, 2019 at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. (Photography by Lukas Maverick Greyson / lukasmaverickgreyson.com)

That Happy continues to be held at the Bronx Zoo, is the subject of a three-year plus court battle between the Zoo management and the NonHuman Rights Project (NhRP) headed by animal rights attorney, and founder/president, Steven M. Wise. Wise took on this case after the report of Happy’s self-awareness experiment, called “the mirror test,” where with the use of an eight by eight-foot mirror, Happy reached out her trunk repeatedly to touch the letter X painted above her eye, causing the researcher to declare that the elephant recognized herself in the mirror. Sometime this Fall, the New York State court will hear more arguments, for and against, on classifying her a “person,” and if successful, allowing her release to one of two U.S. elephant sanctuaries, both ready and willing to take her. There’s not enough space to detail the court actions over the past three years. Like a tennis match, the NhRP files a motion, and the Bronx Zoo files a motion; one files an affidavit, the other files an affidavit.  

Chance meeting on a Kenyan Safari.

I used to love zoos.  My first trip was in second grade, and from then on, I sought them out wherever my family and I traveled. Orlando, San Diego, Bronx, Staten Island, Bear Mountain, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Long Island’s Game Farm, Washington, D.C.; I could go on and on. The more exotic, with lions, tigers, bears (oh my), giraffes, and elephants, the better. That all came crashing down almost ten years ago, and I haven’t been to one since. While on safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, I got the education of my life. On a walking safari that had us up at 5 a.m., we followed our guide into the brush where at one point, he held up his hand high, and seeing his fist, we knew to stop and stay silent. Only about 30 to 40 feet in front of us, behind some tall trees, was a line of elephants slowly moving along; our guide estimated it was a large herd by the continuous line of gray that peeked out from the bare spots in the trees. It was exhilarating, it was terrifying. At one point they stopped; it was eerily quiet. After what seemed like an eternity, the elephants continued on because, as we learned later, they’d sensed we meant no harm. It was my first introduction of seeing the elephant in their natural habitat.

On the flight home, I grabbed a book to read at the airport bookstore. I’d gotten through all my reading material and had a 15-hour ride back to JFK. Browsing the shelves, my eyes caught sight of The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, right there, in my line of vision. The subtitle, Learning about life, loyalty and freedom from a remarkable herd of elephants, didn’t exaggerate; I had it finished halfway over the Atlantic. In brief, Anthony was a South African conservationist who operated his own game reserve and was asked to accept a herd of misfit elephants who would most likely be killed if he didn’t take them in.  Over the years, they enjoyed a special bond, becoming family. However, the story takes a most decisive turn when, at Anthony’s death in 2017, two herds of elephants made a twelve-hour long journey to his house where they held a two-day vigil. The question remains, how did they know he had passed away?  This was my introduction into the soul and intelligence of the elephant, more instructive than any zoo trip, where they mostly stood still, on hard cement, poking at the ground with their trunks.  

Since then, I’ve followed the progress of elephant rescue groups and sanctuaries, both in the U.S. and around the world; I’ve volunteered at them, observed the feeding of orphaned elephant calves, adopted one at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. I’ve followed the transfers of elephants from zoos to sanctuaries – a particularly joyous video can be found on YouTube, of two elephants being reunited at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.   

Visitors at the Bronx Zoo viewing Happy.

However, to understand both sides of the question, I returned to the Bronx Zoo on the first Sunday of the new year. It was gloomy, drizzly, and I wondered if Happy or Patty, the other elephant that exists with her, albeit in her own separate pen, would be out. It was hard to step through the gates, I felt ill.  I passed by the ducks and swans, bears, camels, the lion, all the while feeling heavy at the creatures behind the bars and gates. To my dismay, the Asia area where they were located was closed, and then learned the elephants were not out today. I am guessing due to the winter temperatures, which was a good thing, as elephants need temperatures on average, of 70 degrees. As I left, many families started arriving with toddlers being pushed in strollers. Their inquiring minds could be overheard as they asked  about the bears, about what they eat, why do they hibernate. All this leaves me conflicted, but in a video with Dr. Jane Goodall (see link below), an NhRP board member, she is asked about zoos, what makes a good one, and how those which are run badly do more harm than good. Of all the animals found in zoos, she says, elephants and dolphins are the two that shouldn’t be contained because of the amount of area they require. That says a lot.

While representatives of the Bronx Zoo have decided to pass on commenting for this article, in 2021 their director, Jim Breheny, brought a writer from New York Magazine’s/curbed.com on a golf cart ride to visit Happy.  Breheny focused his comments on a few factors, that she’s being well cared for by her handlers, that zoos provide an important function in promoting animal conservation and education, and that the case is a waste of the court’s time as the writer says, as “there is no U.S. precedent for copying the human right not to be wrongfully imprisoned and pasting it onto a pachyderm.” The director is confident no judge will declare Happy a “person.” 

September 19, 2014: Steven M. Wise, President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, during a Moot Debate to prepare for his the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department, appeal. (Photo credit: Adam Nadel/Polaris)

In my zoom conversation with NhRP’s Wise held before the holidays, he was upbeat, optimistic, and determined. He’s not deterred one bit by the past defeats but views every court appearance – win or lose — as way to learn for the next one. His resolve has not dimmed over the years, in fact, he says he’s as committed as he was in 2018. “We will continue this fight as long as we need to.”  

So, maybe you’re thinking, “is winning this case the only way to free Happy?” No. According to an opinion piece on NBC.com/think, science writer Adam Larson observed, “There are, of course, more conventional — albeit less headline grabbing — tactics that have worked around the world to secure better living conditions for elephants, including legislative action and public pressure…”.  He cites a case where the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors increased the minimum size requirements for elephant enclosures, and another where public pressure led to the release of an elephant from an Alaskan zoo to a California sanctuary. 

Top photo: Happy at the Bronx Zoo (Photo Credit: Gigi Glendinning)

Author Notes: 

This author reached out to the two sanctuaries ready to receive Happy if the time comes; both preferred not to comment. 

Helpful Links: 

On YouTube, Dr. Jane Goodall on the role of zoos today. 

On Curbed, 43 Minutes with Happy the Elephant at Bronx Zoo.

On NBC News/ Think, “Happy the elephant isn’t happy. But does she need to be granted human rights to fix that?

WCS Newsroom: Bronx Zoo statement on Happy the elephant.

About MJ Hanley-Goff (120 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and college essay writing help to students. MJ is thrilled and honored to write for WAT for the amazing adventures it offers, like reviewing concerts, people, authors, events, and tourist attractions in New York, and around the world. “I enjoy drawing attention to the off-the-beaten path kinds of stories,” she says. “It’s great big world out there, with so many talented and creative artists, doers, and thinkers.”