[Un]Happy Result: Elephants, as Nonhuman Beings, May Not Invoke Habeas Corpus

In Matter of Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Breheny, 2022 NY Slip Op 03859 (N.Y. Ct. App. June 14, 2022), the New York Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s determination that the writ of habeas corpus is unavailable where the liberty interest at issue is not that of a “human being,” but rather of an elephant – in this case, Happy.

The court wrote:

For centuries, the common law writ of habeas corpus has safeguarded the liberty rights of human beings by providing a means to secure release from illegal custody. The question before us on this appeal is whether petitioner Nonhuman Rights Project may seek habeas corpus relief on behalf of Happy, an elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo, in order to secure her transfer to an elephant sanctuary. Because the writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement, it has no applicability to Happy, a nonhuman animal who is not a “person” subjected to illegal detention. Thus, while no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion, the courts below properly granted the motion to dismiss the petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and we therefore affirm.

The court’s conclusion entails a relatively straightforward application of well-established law to undisputed facts (here, Happy’s non-human status). It also provides a very comprehensive and detailed review of the “black letter” law (and history) of habeas corpus relief, and is worth a read for that reason alone.

Judges Wilson and Rivera issued separate dissenting opinions.

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