NEW YORK -- Animal rights advocates have lost a bid to get a Bronx Zoo elephant declared to have human-like rights and transferred to a sanctuary, though a judge said the case for sending the pachyderm to a sanctuary was "extremely persuasive."
Bronx Judge Alison Tuitt on Tuesday dismissed the Nonhuman Rights Project's petition arguing that Happy the elephant is "unlawfully imprisoned" at the zoo where she has lived since 1977. She has been kept separate from other elephants for more than a decade.
New York courts have previously said animals aren't legally considered "persons," and Tuitt said those rulings applied to Happy, too. But the judge said she was "extremely sympathetic to Happy's plight."
"This court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty," the judge wrote, calling the arguments for transferring Happy from her "lonely" exhibit to a sprawling elephant sanctuary "extremely persuasive."
Zoo Director Jim Breheny said the ruling keeps Happy in a place providing her with "excellent care."
"The veterinarians, keepers, and curators at the Bronx Zoo believe it is best for Happy to remain in familiar surroundings with the people she knows, relies on and trusts," Breheny said in a statement Wednesday.
The Nonhuman Rights Project lamented that the 48-year-old Happy would stay at the zoo but hailed the judge's comments and vowed to press on.
"Happy's freedom matters as much to her as ours does to us, and we won't stop fighting in and out of court until she has it," Executive Director Kevin Schneider said in a statement.
The group said Happy was in fact living a sad life, isolated from other elephants in a 1-acre (0.40-hectare) exhibit that covers far less territory than she would in the wild, or in a 2,300-acre (931-hectare) sanctuary that has agreed to take her.
Born in the wild in Asia and brought to the U.S. as a 1-year-old, Happy was paired with a female elephant named Grumpy for 25 years. In 2002, Grumpy was fatally injured in a confrontation with two other Bronx Zoo elephants, Maxine and Patty. Happy was then paired with another elephant until its death in 2006.
After that, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoo, said it would no longer acquire new elephants.
Happy was kept apart from Maxine and Patty due to concerns they wouldn't get along. Maxine was euthanized in November, after the zoo said she had neurologic deterioration and generalized muscle weakness that left her unable to eat.
The Nonhuman Rights Project wants Happy to be relocated to a large sanctuary where she could socialize with other elephants and roam more freely.
The zoo's Breheny says the activists have been spreading misinformation about Happy's circumstances and exploiting the pachyderm "to further their misguided philosophical agenda and fund-raise for their cause."
The zoo has said that while Happy doesn't share a holding area with other elephants, she has "tactile and auditory contact with them" and isn't languishing.
Breheny said Wednesday that zookeepers "continually assess Happy's situation and will make decisions based on what is best for her as an individual."