Judge Dismisses Elephant Habeas Petition

An elephant holding a brush in its trunk and using it to paint paint an elephant

As everyone but Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project expected, a judge in the Bronx dismissed a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of Happy the Elephant on the grounds that an elephant is not a person with standing to invoke the writ. Before turning to the decision, I’d like to set the stage by talking about another famous New York City habeas corpus case.

Do you remember the courtroom scenes from the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street? The store psychologist at Macy’s is trying to have Kris Kringle, the real Santa Claus, committed for insanity. It’s not really a habeas corpus case but a commitment case, though Kris’s lawyer, Fred Gailey, threatens to bring a habeas corpus if the judge signs the commitment papers without a hearing. Anyway, the judge, Harper, knows that obviously Kris is not really Santa Claus and is prepared to commit him, but his political fixer tells him how it is, with some help from Harper’s grandkids:

CHARLEY: How’ve you been feeling lately? You look a little run-down.

HARPER: Me? Why, I feel fine. Never better.

CHARLEY: Why not see the doc? Take a few weeks off. Go fishing, go hunting. Go anyplace.

HARPER: Why should I?

CHARLEY: Because this Kringle case is dynamite. Let some judge handle it that isn’t coming up for reelection.

HARPER: I can’t do that.

CHARLEY: I’m no legal brain trust. I don’t know a habeas from a corpus. But I do know politics. That’s my racket. I got you elected, didn’t I? And I’m gonna try to get you reelected.

HARPER: I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me.

CHARLEY: Then get off this case.

HARPER: But why?

CHARLEY: You’re a Pontius Pilate the minute you start.

HARPER: Oh, I don’t believe it. I’m an honest man… and nobody’s going to hold it against me… for doing my duty as I see it.

CHILDREN: Grandma! Grandma! Grandma!

MRS. HARPER: Good night, Terry. Good night, Alice. Now, straight to bed. I promised your mother you’d be in bed by 8, and it’s way past.

ALICE: Aren’t you coming, too?

MRS. HARPER: I’ll be up soon to tuck you in. Now, scoot!

HARPER: How about a great big kiss for Grandpa, hmm?

ALICE: Hmmph!

TERRY: Hmmph!

HARPER: Fine way to treat their grandfather! No hug, no kiss, no anything.

MRS. HARPER: I don’t blame them. Any man who’d put Santa Claus on trial for lunacy.

CHARLEY: See what I mean?

If you haven’t seen the movie, can you guess how Judge Harper ruled?

The judge in today’s case reminded me a lot of Judge Harper, though she did a little better than Judge Harper in the end. The law was perfectly clear, and the judge held, at the end of the day, that under the precedents an elephant is not a person, which was the dispositive issue in the case. But no one wants to rule against Santa Claus. And so the judge went on at length to explain what no one really denies: that Happy is “an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytic abilities akin to human beings,” an “intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity.” All true, but all irrelevant. The opinion could well have been a one-pager, but this way, the judge got to “blame the Appellate Division.”

Just to restate the obvious: elephants are not persons. Animal welfare is important and should be the subject of active legislative efforts. We do not need to make the law ridiculous, adopt an anti-democratic approach, and appoint Steven Wise the tribune of the animals in order to protect animal welfare.

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