By Larry Keane
Thanksgiving could look completely different if the Nonhuman Rights Project Inc., an animal rights group, gets its way in a case pending before the New York’s Court of Appeals in 2022.
The animal rights group is suing – again – to extend human rights to animals. In this case, it is for Happy, an Asian elephant that’s been in the care of the Bronx Zoo. The case, though, could have far-reaching implications for hunting and conservation.
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) is appealing a case that was dismissed by Bronx Supreme Court Judge Alison Tuitt in February 2020. NhRP alleges the Bronx Zoo is illegally detained Happy and the animal, as an “extraordinarily complex” creature, should have human rights.
That was the fifth time the group has lost a fight to claim legal personhood for animals. While elephants are said to have extraordinary memory capabilities, NhRP doesn’t. They are appealing a habeas corpus petition, a legal protection for imprisoned persons, arguing Happy the elephant has the same rights in the court as a person.
The case seems absurd, but it is one worth watching, especially by America’s original conservationists. That’s the men and women who hunt and are literally invested in perpetuating wildlife not just in North America, but around the globe. The case could have far-reaching effects if courts rule that animals are “persons” and are endowed with the same rights as humans. It might sound far-fetched, but to these extremist groups, it is a stepping stone to making a case to ban hunting altogether.
After all, if courts rule elephants are “persons” endowed with rights under the law, antihunting groups have the open door to stake a legal claim that hunting is tantamount to murder. Next year’s Thanksgiving Day turkey dinner could be termed a homicide.
The case centers on Happy, the 51-year-old elephant that has been cared for at the Bronx Zoo. Happy was originally paired with another elephant, Grumpy. That elephant was killed by two other elephants and since then Happy has been kept separate for her safety following a failed attempt to pair her with another elephant. Happy, however, is able to maintain physical contact through fencing with another elephant.
NhPR wants the court to grant its request to move Happy from the zoo to a sanctuary in Tennessee or California.
The notion of assigning “personhood” rights to an elephant being cared for by professional biologists and zoologists at an accredited zoo might seem absurd but must be taken seriously by hunters and conservationists. NhRP’s founder and lead attorney Steven Wise teaches at Harvard University and previously argued that chimpanzees were “persons” too. Wise told a judge in a prior attempt that dogs have “personhood” too, as well as “bodily rights” and breeding them would be illegal. Under that theory, using hunting dogs would constitute animal slavery. Harvesting game would be tantamount to murder.
This is important to watch this case because extremist groups like NhRP ignore the contributions hunters and the firearm industry make to conservation. Don’t expect them to acknowledge that firearm and ammunition manufacturers have contributed over $14 billion to the conservation of wildlife and habitats since the Pittman-Robertson excise tax was implemented in 1937. That’s led to the recovery of game and non-game species at today’s healthy and sustainable levels.
None of that matters to NhRP or their extremist allies. They’re focused on a court win that would upend conservation – and hunting – forever.
If that happens, Thanksgiving next year might be a whole lot different.
Larry Keane is Senior Vice President of Government and Public Affairs and General Counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association.