A Habeas Corpus is a legal mechanism for a person to report unlawful imprisonment to the courts. They have been around since King Henry II of England in the form of the following decree.
No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land.
In other words, you can't take your neighbor prisoner because he messed up your hedges. Courts get to decide who goes to jail, not any citizen with a gripe.
A writ of habeas corpus exclusively applies to humans but last week, all of that changed. A writ of Habeas Corpus was issued by a judge in the Orleans county supreme court for Happy, an elephant who animal rights activists say has been suffering and isolated at the Bronx Zoo.
Animal rights activists are calling the ruling a boon for elephants and all animals who are held under bad conditions in zoos across the country.
“The core problem we’re trying to address is that all animals are considered legal things with no rights, which makes it really hard for advocates to get them out of situations where they might not be abused physically, but the situation they live in would be unjust and a source of tremendous suffering,” said Lauren Choplin, communications director for the Nonhuman Rights Project which has been ushering the writ through the legal system.
The Nonhuman Rights Project has been trying to get Happy moved to a sanctuary where she'll have the space to roam and the opportunity to engage with other elephants.
“For us, the fact that court issued an order to show cause on behalf of an elephant without necessarily questioning if an elephant can have a writ of habeas corpus was profoundly important to us, and that’s the first time in the world an elephant has been issued an order to show cause,” Choplin said. “Basically what that means is the legal representation for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo have to come into court on this day and justify their detainment of Happy.”
Regardless of what happens, the writ is a step in the right direction.