Saga of Happy the Elephant proof nothing is alien to Catholic concern

Saga of Happy the Elephant proof nothing is alien to Catholic concern

Bronx Zoo elephant "Happy" strolls inside the zoo's Asia Habitat in New York. (Credit: Bebeto Matthews/AP.)

In a 1979 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope (now Saint) John Paul II declared, “Nothing human is alien to the Christian.” What Happy’s case demonstrates anew is that in all honesty, John Paul could have stricken the word “human” from that sentence.

News Analysis

ROME – Journalistically speaking, the great thing about the Catholic beat is that there’s absolutely no story on earth to which there isn’t an organic connection to something Catholic to justify wading into it.

Into politics? Right now the President of the United States is a Roman Catholic, which means that everything he says and does can be evaluated through a Catholic lens. Business? The Vatican is forever hobnobbing with the titans of industry, such as recent declaration on artificial intelligence with executives from Microsoft and IBM. If sports is your thing, the head football coach at Alabama, Nick Saban, who just won his record seventh national championship, is a Catholic, and the new Catholic Student Center at the university is actually named for him and his wife Terry.

For ultimate proof of the point that there’s a Catholic angle on everything, consider Happy the Elephant.

If you haven’t heard, Happy is a 50-year-old female Asian elephant currently housed at the Bronx Zoo. She was captured as a baby along with six other calves and sold to an outfit that offered safari-like experiences in California, who named the elephants for the Seven Dwarves – Happy, Grumpy Sneezy, etc.

Eventually the elephants were sold off and scattered to various zoos and circuses across the country, with Happy and Grumpy ending up at the Bronx Zoo. Grumpy was euthanized in 2002 and, since 2006, Happy has spent virtually all of her time alone, much of it when she isn’t on display in an indoor elephant cage about twice the size of her body.

In 2015, the New York Times defined Happy as “The Bronx Zoo’s loneliest elephant.”

One interesting note to Happy’s story is that in 2006 she passed what’s known as the “Mirror Test,” which is basically a behavioral test to measure an animal’s self-awareness, meaning its ability to distinguish itself from others. The idea is to place a mark on the animal in a place where it can’t see, and then hold up a mirror showing the spot. If the animal reaches for it, that’s considered a sign of self-awareness.

In Happy’s case, a colored X was painted on her forehead and she repeatedly touched it, while she ignored a colorless X designed to make sure she wasn’t simply reacting to smell or taste. To date, she remains the only elephant to have passed the mirror test.

In October 2018, a nonprofit animal rights group called the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a habeas corpus claim on behalf of Happy, seeking recognition of the elephant as a “person” for legal purposes, and hence holding a right to bodily liberty, along with her transfer to a sanctuary someplace where she can live in the company of other elephants.

For the last two years and four months, the case has wound its way through the legal system and currently stands before the New York Court of Appeals. A ruling is expected sometime in the second half of March.

Where’s the Catholic angle? Well, the most recent amici curiae brief to be filed in the case comes from five Catholic theologians siding with the request for habeas corpus release of Happy, including thinkers from renowned Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Villanova and Fordham. (The lineup includes Charles Camosy, who is also a contributor to Crux.)

Drawing on traditional Catholic ethical categories, the theologians argue for Happy’s freedom on the basis of natural law considerations.

“Happy is not a thing for us to confine, use, and put on display in a zoo (even in an attempt to produce a good outcome),” they wrote, “but rather a particular kind of creature who God made to flourish in a particular way—a way some academics refer to as a telos.”

“As we explain [in this brief], we believe Happy cannot flourish as this kind of creature while captive in the Bronx Zoo and that she would be significantly better able [to] become the kind of creature God made her to be in a sanctuary … Non-human animals belong to God, not to us. They are God’s creatures, not ours,” the theologians contend.

To be clear, these theologians speak only for themselves, certainly not for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or any other official entity. Moreover, for every five Catholic theologians willing to line up in favor of recognizing an elephant as a “person,” I’m sure you could find another five to argue against it. As the saying goes, put two Catholic theologians in a room and pretty soon you’ll have three opinions.

Still, these particular theologians are bringing classically Catholic arguments to bear, and should the seven judges on the New York Court of Appeals choose to engage their brief, it could be a fascinating test of the extent to which natural law considerations cut any ice in a civil, secular court.

In the meantime, the Happy saga illustrates another point.

In a 1979 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope (now Saint) John Paul II declared, “Nothing human is alien to the Christian.” What Happy’s case demonstrates anew is that in all honesty, John Paul could have stricken the word “human” from that sentence.

There simply is nothing, noting at all, alien to Catholic concern. After all, the word “catholic” means “universal,” and if filing briefs on behalf of elephants doesn’t put an exclamation point on that universality, I’m not sure what would.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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