In Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Breheny, 2022 NY Slip Op 3859 (N.Y. 2022), the New York Court of Appeals held that the writ of habeas corpus is intended to protect the liberty right of human beings to be free of unlawful confinement. Habeas corpus, therefore, has no applicability to animals (who are not “persons”), and specifically is not applicable to Happy, an elephant resident at the Bronx Zoo.
The petitioner, Nonhuman Rights Project (“NRP”), filed a lawsuit seeking habeas corpus relief on behalf of Happy, an elephant residing at the Bronx Zoo, in order to secure her transfer to an elephant sanctuary. In support of the lawsuit, NRP explained that Happy is an extraordinarily cognitively complex and autonomous nonhuman animal, and that she should be recognized as a legal person with the right to bodily liberty protected by the common law.
The New York Supreme Court dismissed NRP’s petition on the ground that animals are not “persons” entitled to rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus and, in any event, habeas relief is not available where, as here, the petitioner merely sought to obtain Happy's transfer from one lawful confinement to another rather than her immediate release from detention. On appeal, the Appellate Division unanimously affirmed, reasoning that the writ of habeas corpus is limited to human beings.
At the Court of Appeals, NRP urged the Court to recognize Happy as a legal "person" with a common law right to bodily liberty subject to the protections of the writ of habeas corpus.
The majority of the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the New York Supreme Court and the Appellate Division in holding that habeas corpus is not applicable to Happy.
First, the Court noted that no New York court or any other state court has ever held that habeas corpus is applicable to a nonhuman animal. Rather, courts have consistently determined that rights and responsibilities associated with legal personhood cannot be bestowed on nonhuman animals. The Court was careful to point out that the selective capacity for autonomy, intelligence, and emotion of a particular nonhuman animal species is not a determinative factor in whether habeas corpus is available because those factors are not what makes a person detained qualified to seek the writ. Rather, habeas corpus protects the right to liberty of humans simply because they are humans.
Second, the majority noted that even NRP implicitly conceded that Happy is not guaranteed freedom from captivity. The relief requested is not a discharge from confinement altogether, but rather, a transfer of Happy from one confinement (the Bronx Zoo) to another slightly different form of confinement (an elephant sanctuary). The Court noted that this request for relief is an implicit acknowledgment that Happy, as a nonhuman animal, does not have a legally cognizable right to be at liberty under New York law.
Third, the Court noted that legal personhood is often connected with the capacity to assume legal duties and social responsibilities. Unlike the human species, which has the capacity to accept social responsibilities and legal duties, nonhuman animals cannot, either individually or collectively, be held legally accountable or required to fulfill obligations imposed by law.
Therefore, the majority of the New York Court of Appeals held that habeas corpus, which exists to protect liberty interests, is not the appropriate forum to resolve disputes concerning the confinement of nonhuman animals.