By Leisa Boley Hellwarth
Once upon a time, nearly two decades ago, a puppy was dumped on our farm.
Kent named him Barney, and he was a wonderful creature. With one exception. He had hunting genes in his DNA that caused him to lose all sense of reason when his hunting dog genetics took over. We struggled to protect him. He was knocked down on the road during a snowstorm one winter morning.
We were sad and experienced the unbearable silence when a beloved pet left. A few weeks after the crash, Kent traveled to K&L in Fort Recovery, for their annual March Chopper School. I went to a nearby humane society and brought home the perfect companion for Kent (regardless, the plan was to find the ultimate dog for me). Chopper was part Blue Heeler and part Labrador Retriever and completely adorable. For over 10 years, he spent every waking moment he could by Kent’s side.
Several months ago we lost our white Lab mix, George. It was also abandoned here more than ten years ago. George quickly became the caretaker of the farm. He followed me when I was feeding the calves. He surveyed the perimeter of the farm and assessed every vehicle and visitor that arrived. This isn’t your grandparents’ farming neighborhood. A good guard dog is extremely important these days to ward off coyotes and unwanted humans who show up looking for items to steal for drug money.
On March 22, K&L held another Chopper School. Kent headed southwest to Fort Recovery. I intended to head to the nearby human society and repeat history. I intended to find another cohort for Kent. Good thing I called before I left. Turns out you can’t just show up and adopt a dog. These days you have to fill out a personality profile which is used to match you with a suitable animal. What? I’ve trained more dogs than I can admit. I spend most of my waking hours caring for animals. I don’t need a psychological evaluation. I need a puppy. The one who will become the guardian of the cattle and the defender of the farm.
I found out while talking to a breed rescue that disclosing your occupation as a farmer will probably prevent you from getting a dog. The breed I was interested in was a working breed, but the volunteer in charge informed me that they do not allow their dogs to work while placed in a home. It’s not like we make our dogs milk the cows. Although I think our Border Collies would probably appreciate this and perfect the milking routine, if possible. I now look at the online classifieds for working ranches and look after the two border collies and the retired Blue Heeler show dog who are enjoying life on our farm, even though they work cattle and find themselves here without psychological compatibility being established.
This brings me to the latest development of ongoing litigation in New York. On May 18, the New York Court of Appeals scheduled oral arguments in a case involving Happy the Elephant. It is the first time in history that the highest court in an English-speaking jurisdiction will hear a habeas corpus brought on behalf of someone other than a human being.
Happy is a female Asian elephant, weighing 8,500 pounds, who was born in the wild in 1971. She was captured as a baby in Thailand and sold for $800 to a now defunct zoo, the Lion Country Safari in Laguna Hills, California. . Since 1977, Happy the Elephant has been supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, one of the best in the world. Happy is housed in a 1.15 acre exhibit that mimics the look of nature. Most elephants in US zoos have lived in spaces half the size. There’s another elephant, Patty, in an adjacent space, but Happy and Patty don’t get along.
In 2006, the Bronx Zoo announced that no further elephants would be acquired. Zoos have responded to the growing public sentiment that elephants do not belong in captivity.
There have been no charges of alleged abuse against the Wildlife Conservation Society or the Bronx Zoo regarding Happy. There has, however, been media coverage emphasizing Happy living alone in her habitat for 16 years. When it’s cold, Happy is moved to a small stall.
Steven Wise is the attorney representing the Non Human Rights Project (NhRP), an organization he founded. Wise has spent most of his legal career trying to establish legal rights for animals. On October 2, 2018, the NhRP filed a common law habeas corpus petition in the New York Supreme Court, demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personality and fundamental right to bodily liberty and release to a sanctuary for elephants.
A writ of habeas corpus orders the guardian of a detained individual to bring him or her into court to investigate his detention, appear for prosecution, or appear to testify. In New York, a writ of habeas corpus can be obtained by any “person” unlawfully detained. In Bronx County, most of these claims come on behalf of prisoners at Rikers Island.
If the judge granted the habeas petition to move Happy from the zoo to a sanctuary, in the eyes of the law, she would be a person. She would have rights. On February 18, 2020, the NhRP lost its case. The judge ruled that Happy was not a person and was not unlawfully imprisoned. The NhRP filed an appeal on July 10, 2020. On December 17, 2020, the NhRP lost its appeal.
On May 4, 2021, New York’s highest court agreed to hear the case, the New York Farm Bureau, New York Dairy Association and Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance filed a brief in support of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo. This paper supports their argument that extending the writ of habeas corpus to nonhuman animals will devastate the agricultural industry.
Granting personality to an elephant would flood the courts with similar appeals for other animals and for broader rights. One of the biggest issues would be who is speaking on behalf of the animals. I know from my time in juvenile court that representing those who are too young or otherwise unable to speak can be a huge problem. I remember a case that lasted several years because the guardian ad litem appointed to represent the interests of a child in a poor neighborhood objected to the custody of the grandmother because the grandmother did not had no curtains on her windows. I represented the grandmother. She eventually won custody.
Here’s hoping common sense prevails in May and while deliberations continue. I’ll keep you up-to-date.
Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and lawyer. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. His office number is 419-586-1072.