A Bronx Zoo elephant named Happy who has lived mostly alone since her mate was fatally injured is being "unlawfully imprisoned" by the New York City facility, according to a legal petition filed Tuesday by an activist group.
The Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Happy, who has lived at the Bronx Zoo since 1977, has rights like any human and should be relocated to a large sanctuary where she can socialize with other elephants and roam more freely.
"Our world-class experts say that, like all elephants, Happy is an autonomous being who evolved to walk 20 or more miles a day as a member of a multi-generational large social group," said Nonhuman Rights Project founder Steven Wise. "The entirety of the zoo's elephant exhibit provides far less than even 1 percent of the space she would roam in a single day in the wild."
The group filed its court petition in Orleans County, 280 miles (450 kilometers) away from the zoo in western New York, because judges elsewhere in the state have taken a dim view in past legal proceedings of the idea that animals have legal rights like people.
Zoo officials say Happy appears to be content, is cared for by loving handlers and might suffer from a transfer to an unfamiliar facility.
"The Nonhuman Rights Project is exploiting the Bronx Zoo elephants to advance their own failing cause in the courts as they put forth ludicrous legal arguments and lies about our elephants, facilities and staff," said Bronx Zoo Director Jim Breheny.
For 25 years, Happy was paired with another elephant named Grumpy. But in 2002, Grumpy was fatally injured in a confrontation with two other Bronx zoo elephants, Maxine and Patty. Happy was then paired with a new friend, Sammy, who died in 2006. After that, the Wildlife Conservation Society said it would no longer acquire new elephants.
Since then, Happy has been without a partner and kept apart from Maxine and Patty due to concerns they won't get along.
Breheny said Happy doesn't share the same holding pens as the other elephants but is in "tactile and auditory contact with them" and spends several hours a day interacting with keepers, according to a statement posted on the zoo's website in 2016.
"Happy is healthy and comfortable in the home she has known for nearly four decades. Our animal care professionals say she exhibits no signs of physiological or psychological stress with virtually no stereotypical behavior. We don't think moving Happy from familiar surroundings and the people to whom she is bonded is in her best interest," he wrote.
If Happy left the Bronx Zoo, there are several sanctuaries in the United States that accept elephants, including ones in Tennessee, Georgia and California.
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