Can’t We Just Be Happy For ‘Happy?’


In June of this year, the New York Court of Appeals ruled, in a 5-2 decision, that “Happy” the elephant is an elephant after all. You would think that with all the terrible things happening in New York State, like crime, taxes and government corruption, they wouldn’t waste time listening to a case about whether an elephant may or may not be a human.
Animal rights activists have advocated for animals that can’t speak for themselves for years. Cages resembling prison cells are a thing of the past. Thanks to the activists, who sometimes get a bad rap, visitors to the zoo can observe most of these animals in a more natural habitat.

Unlike her wild brethren, Happy the Elephant has spent the past few decades
roaming an acre of land at the Bronx Zoo.
(Photo by Felix Andrews/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sometimes, animals in their natural habitat can be a little boring. Since they no longer have to run for their lives from predators, they spend a lot of time lying around in the shade. And who can blame them? If you want to see a cheetah sprint across the field and take down its prey, turn on the Discovery Channel.
But what makes “Happy” the elephant any different from “Fred” the lion in the Bronx Zoo? Well, Fred didn’t have the Nonhuman Rights Project in his corner.

Happy, who recently received a mailing from AARP when she turned 50, has called the Bronx Zoo home for the last 45 years. Although the Bronx Zoo has agreed not to take on any additional elephants for exhibits in the future, it still maintains a home for both Happy and another elephant, Patty. Unfortunately, the two do not get along and live in separate enclosures, divided by a fence.

In early 2020, the Nonhuman Rights Project challenged the zoo’s right to confine Happy, arguing that the situation amounted to “a cruel confinement.” They feel that since Happy is an intelligent being, they could sue under habeas corpus rights against improper detention. A trial court judge denied their motion. An appellate court then upheld the original ruling. That set up the hearing for the Court of Appeals in June of 2022.
Although both sides agreed Happy should not just be set loose to roam the streets of Upper Manhattan, the project wanted her moved to a proper sanctuary for elephants.
And that’s where their argument no longer held water.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore ruled that the relief they request is not from confinement but from one type of confinement to another. That request proves Happy can’t speak for herself and therefore is non-human. No one could possibly answer the question as to what would be better for Happy. Would she be better off staying in the only environment she has known for the last 45 years, with over an acre of land to roam free in and loving, familiar handlers? Or would she be better off being placed in a new home with more elephants to socialize with?

Where is Dr. Doolittle when you need him?
Judge Rowan Wilson, one of the two dissenting votes, agreed that “an elephant is not a member of the homo sapiens species. At the same time, an elephant is not a desk chair or an earthworm.”
Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.

So where does that leave Happy, now that she has officially been declared non-human and can return to being an elephant again? Well, at 50 years old, she still has about 20 years of life expectancy. It sounds to me like she is already in an assisted living facility where they are taking excellent care of her.
Could you imagine the chaos if the court sided with the Nonhuman Rights Project? Louie the Labrador and all other animals would have the right not to be kept in captivity. Where would we be then?
If dogs ever earn the right not to be kept in captivity, who will pick up after them?

Paul DiSclafani is an award-winning columnist and author living in Massapequa for more than 50 years. Visit to learn more about him.

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