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New York City Introduces Landmark Legislation To Ban Elephant Captivity & Relocate Those Imprisoned To Accredited Sanctuaries

Yesterday, Council Member Shahana Hanif introduced legislation to ban elephant captivity in New York City. The landmark bill builds on existing city and state laws that prohibit the use of elephants in circuses and would mean the release of Happy, the lone elephant currently confined at the Bronx Zoo, to a sanctuary.

Supported by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) and Voters For Animal Rights (VFAR), the passage of the bill would mark the first elephant captivity ban in the United States in a city that currently has elephants in captivity.

Under the recommended legislation, all forms of elephant captivity are banned with strict requirements for any exceptions. Any entity in New York City looking to continue keeping an elephant must meet stringent conditions that would allow the elephants to live as freely as possible.

“These regulations will ensure that the complex social-emotional needs of elephants are met, and if they can’t be, then this bill requires elephants to be released to a sanctuary,” Council Member Hanif said in a statement sent to WAN. “I’m proud to stand with the Nonhuman Rights Project to ensure that all living beings in our City are treated with dignity.”

From 2018 to 2022, Happy was NhRP’s client in a court case that reached the New York Court of Appeals and resulted in two dissents that criticized Happy’s continued confinement in the Bronx Zoo.

Born in the wild in Thailand in 1971 and imported into the United States, Happy is the first elephant in the world to have habeas corpus hearings to determine the lawfulness of her captivity and the first elephant to demonstrate self-awareness via the mirror self-recognition test. Since 2006, Happy has been held alone in captivity in the Bronx Zoo following the deaths of her two companions.

In 2020, Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt wrote about Happy’s captivity, “The arguments advanced by the NhRP are extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, to an elephant sanctuary … [Happy] is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity.” Additionally, Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera wrote, “A gilded cage is still a cage….Happy may be a dignified creature, but there is nothing dignified about her captivity.”

“It is clearer than ever that elephants don’t belong in captivity and suffer greatly when deprived of their freedom,” said NhRP Director of Government Relations Courtney Fern. Elephants need and deserve to live freely. We’re proud to support this bill which will help them do that, and we’re grateful to Council Member Hanif for helping to ensure that these majestic beings no longer suffer in New York City.”

Council Member Hanif’s bill is the first piece of legislation in the country not only to ban elephant captivity but also to require the relocation of any impacted elephants to a sanctuary. In sanctuaries, formerly captive elephants, including those with traumatic histories, have ample space to roam, socialize, and make choices, enabling them to heal and thrive after decades of confinement. In some sanctuaries, elephants are able to again form herds as they do in the wild.

Scientific studies by elephant cognition and behavior experts have shown that elephants are cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex beings who suffer when confined in small environments. In captivity, elephants experience painful physical ailments, including arthritis and joint issues from standing on hard, unnatural surfaces, as well as emotional trauma and brain damage from being unable to roam freely and interact with other elephants as they would in their vastly larger natural habitats.

“Just as I would not like to be held against my will for my entire life in a desolate enclosure, I do not believe elephants should be held under such horrendous conditions,” stated Dr. Bob Jacobs, a Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado College, who has extensively studied how captivity damages elephants’ brains. “Elephants in zoos are woefully deprived of social and cognitive stimulation. As such, they experience chronic stress and chronic health problems. Barren environments damage brains. Period. Elephants deserve better.”

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

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