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Appellate court hears landmark case of lonesome elephant at NYC zoo

Nov. 19 (UPI) -- An animal rights group is wading further into a court fight on Thursday, hoping to persuade a three-judge panel to rescue a 49-year-old Asian elephant by moving it from a New York City zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee.

The landmark case, filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), argues that the elephant -- named "Happy" -- has endured many years of injustice and solitary confinement at the Bronx Zoo and should be relocated.

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The group, which advocates fundamental rights for nonhuman animals, says Happy is a legal "person" with a basic right to liberty. It is asking the New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court to send the animal to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.

"[The court] can and should now put an end to the injustice of Happy's decades-long imprisonment at the Bronx Zoo and grant her freedom," the NhRP said.

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Thursday's hearing begins at 2 p.m. EST.

The organization likens Happy's living situation to "solitary confinement," as the Bronx Zoo has housed only one other elephant since 2018 -- and the two are kept separate due to concerns that they do not get along.

The result, the group says, are long hours of loneliness every day for Happy, who's lived alone at the zoo for the past 14 years. Scientists say elephants are uniquely social animals and benefit from interaction with other elephants.

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The NhRP is asking the court for immediate help, and argues that Happy will soon be moved to the zoo's "elephant barn" -- a cement structure with windowless, barred cages -- and stay there until May when the exhibit closes this month for the winter.

"Simply put, the Bronx Zoo's exhibit is too small to meet the needs of Happy or any elephant," elephant expert Dr. Joyce Poole wrote in behalf of the NhRP.

"Happy deserves to live the rest of her life at [the sanctuary] where the utmost care will be given to her individual needs and she'll have the space and conditions needed to heal and to form psychologically necessary bonds with other elephants."

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The Bronx Zoo has opposed Happy's release to a sanctuary and denies that she is held in isolation or kept indoors for half the year. It says all animals in its care are well cared for.

"The Bronx Zoo takes excellent care of Happy and will continue to do so, along with all animals here at the zoo," it said in a statement earlier this year. "Her well-being is assured by our dedicated staff and all the expertise they bring in providing excellent care for her for more than 40 years.

"From the beginning, the information perpetuated by NhRP about Happy has been inaccurate, misleading or simply false."

According to a profile on the NhRP website, Happy has lived at the Bronx Zoo since 1977. In 2005, she became the first elephant to "pass" the mirror self-recognition test, which is considered an indicator of self-awareness.

In 2018, she also became the first elephant to have a habeas corpus hearing, as her case was heard by the Orleans Supreme Court.

In February, a petition seeking to declare Happy a legal "person" was dismissed and a judge ruled that she is not being unlawfully imprisoned at the zoo. The NhRP obtained an injunction against the zoo last month to prevent them from moving Happy somewhere else before the case made it to court.

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