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When Happy the elephant arrived at the Bronx Zoo in 1977, the herbivorous mammal was placed inside a fenced area separating her from the zoo’s other elephant.

For years, the two elephants touched their trunks, smelled and communicated through the fence, zoo spokeswoman Mary Dixon previously told The Washington Post.

But in 2018, the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights organization known for fighting for animals to be recognized as humans, sued the zoo, arguing that Happy should be considered an autonomous person, so she qualified. for the same protections against imprisonment as humans, adding that – contrary to its name – the elephant was, in fact, not happy in captivity.

After years of legal wrangling, New York’s highest court ruled on Tuesday that although Happy and all elephants are “intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion”, she is not illegally detained at the Bronx Zoo and cannot be considered a person, the 109-page Statements of Decision.

The 5-2 decision written by Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore comes after a lower court also ruled that Happy was not a person, meaning the animal could not be transported to one of the country’s two main elephant sanctuaries based on habeas corpus, a legal procedure used to challenge the illegal confinement. Supporters argued that Happy would have a lot more space and interaction with other elephants at a sanctuary.

A spokesperson for the Bronx Zoo did not immediately respond to a message from the Post early Wednesday.

In a statement following the court’s ruling, the Nonhuman Rights Project commended Justices Jenny Rivera and Rowan D. Wilson for dissenting with the majority and expressed disappointment with the ruling.

Is Happy the zoo elephant legally a person? A court will decide.

“This is not just a loss for Happy, whose freedom was at stake in this case and who remains imprisoned in an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo,” the organization said. “It is also a loss to all who care about upholding and strengthening our most cherished values ​​and principles of justice – autonomy, freedom, equality and fairness – and ensuring that our legal system is free from arbitrary reasoning. and that no one is denied basic rights just because of who they are.

He added: “The fact remains that Happy deserves to live freely, in peace and with dignity in the much larger and more natural environment of a sanctuary designed to respect the autonomy of elephants.”

In the closely watched case, the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that Happy, who is around 50 years old, is a self-contained, cognitively complex animal who is entitled to protection from unlawful imprisonment under US law.

The maintained zoo that Happy is not illegally confined, saying his staff are taking good care of the animal “like the magnificent creature that she is”. He also argued that Happy – born in the wild and named after a dwarf from the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” – is treated with compassion, has contact with the other elephant and has a close bond with its zookeepers.

“At the Bronx Zoo, we are focused on what is best for Happy, not in general terms, but as an individual with a unique and distinct personality,” the organization said in A declaration.

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Tuesday’s decision marks another loss for the animal rights nonprofit. In 2017, the group lost another court case in which it argued that two caged chimpanzees were legally people and should be moved to a sanctuary. Last month, he filed a similar lawsuit in central California, seeking the release of three elephants from the Fresno Chaffee Zoo.

Marisa Iati contributed to this report.