Brooklyn Boro

Set Bronx Zoo Elephants Happy and Patty Free, Council Bill Orders

Proposed measure from Brooklyn City Councilmember Shahana Hanif seeks animal freedom a high-profile lawsuit failed to achieve.

March 17, 2023 Jonathan Custodio, The City
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Brooklyn Council Member Shahana Hanif will introduce a bill Thursday that would, in effect, force the Bronx Zoo to give up custody of New York City’s two remaining elephants, Happy and Patty.

“No other City has passed legislation to ban elephant captivity, and I’m proud New York City will be the first,” Hanif, the co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus, told THE CITY in a statement.

“I’m proud to introduce this bill today to set new humane standards around elephant captivity in our City.”

The bill would require elephants here to have a habitat of at least 15 acres, compared to the acre each that Happy and Patty, both 50-something female Asian Elephants, reportedly have at the Bronx Zoo. The two live separately, after Happy’s long-time companion Grumpy died in 2002, reportedly after being attacked by Patty and another elephant.

The Bronx Zoo—which acquired Happy in 1977 and trained her, along with other elephants, to perform tricks, which she did in costume as recently as the 1980s—said in 2006 that it intends to close its elephant exhibit after the pachyderms there now die.

Happy, who was born in the early 1970s, probably in Thailand, was captured and brought to a Florida petting zoo with six other elephants, each named for one of the dwarves in Snow White. The Bronx Zoo acquired her and Grumpy in 1977.

A spokesperson for the Zoo declined to comment ahead of Hanif formally introducing her bill on Thursday.

The bill has co-sponsors already lined up, though none from The Bronx. Council Member Oswald Feliz, whose district includes The Bronx Zoo, and Council Member Althea Stevens, whose district borders it, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Michael Whitesides, Hanif’s spokesperson, said that “We’re still in conversation with Bronx electeds and hope to have them sign on soon.”

Hanif crafted the bill working with the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal-advocacy organization based in Florida that pursued a legal case in New York arguing that Happy was being illegally detained and should be transferred out of the zoo.

The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, found in a 5-2 decision that the elephant, however self-aware and cognitively complex, did not have habeas corpus, a fundamental human right to bodily liberty and freedom from unfair confinement.

The bill would prohibit any riding on elephants, or forcing them to work or perform, and would separate male and female elephants into separate herds while banning any breeding. It would also require that elephants have access to physical and emotional stimuli, which Hanif said “will ensure the complex social-emotional needs of elephants are met and if they can’t be, then this bill requires elephants be released to a sanctuary.”

While the bill does not define the term “sanctuary,” there are at least two in the United States, one in Tennessee and another in Northern California.

Courtney Fern, the director of government operations for the  Nonhuman Rights Project, said on Wednesday that Hanif’s bill would bring relief to animals who “are known to suffer greatly in captivity when they’re deprived of their freedom.”

She said that the legislation, “if passed, would be the first elephant captivity ban in the U.S.— And I think it’s an important step to helping end elephant suffering,”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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