“Call no man happy until he is dead,” wrote Sophocles in Oedipus the King.
Elephants, happily, don’t suffer from all the human existential angst with which we humans are saddled. For them the situation is a lot more straightforward: more than anything, they just need to be free to live their lives as nature intended.
But for the elephant named Happy at the Bronx Zoo, nothing about her life is happy. That’s because, in a terrible irony, Happy, who demonstrated to scientific researchers how animals of her species are capable of a high level of self-awareness, now languishes all alone in a cage about twice the size of her body.
Six years ago, at age 35, Happy joined an elite group of animals, including chimpanzees, dolphins, magpies and humans, who have shown the ability to pass the famous Mirror Self-Recognition Test. The concept is basically very simple, although a lot of controls and details are included to make sure it’s carried out properly.
Essentially, the animal is introduced to a mirror so she can see herself. Once she’s become used to the presence of the mirror and to the animal she sees in its reflection, the researchers put a mark on her body – somewhere, for example on her forehead, where she can’t see it without looking in the mirror. If she goes up to the mirror, sees the mark, and then starts touching and exploring the mark on her own body, this means she understands that the elephant in the mirror is herself, which means that she has a relatively advanced level of self-awareness. (We humans can’t recognize ourselves in a mirror until we’re 18 to 24 months old.)
As Gay Bradshaw describes it in her book Elephants on the Edge:
The Mirror Self-Recognition test identifies critical levels of cognitive development, the ability to engage in abstract psychological levels of knowing that relate to the theory of mind, indicating that one is not only conscious but self-conscious. The assumption behind the test is is that only a subject who has a sense of self, an awareness of her existence as a unique being and who acts as an instrument of her own fate is able to recognize her form in a mirror’s reflection – to know what she looks like on the “outside”.
When the mirror was first put in their compound, Happy and her two zoo companions, Patty and Maxine, carried their food over to to eat in front of the mirror and used their trunks to touch parts of their bodies. Maxine put the tip of her trunk into her mouth while looking in the mirror and then started pulling on her ear. Then the researchers proceeded to the critical stage of the test, putting a white cross on the head of each of the three elephants. Happy promptly touched the cross while watching herself in the mirror, thus demonstrating her capacity for self-awareness.
You might think that any animal who has passed the Mirror Self-Recognition Test has, by definition, demonstrated that she doesn’t belong in a zoo but rather in a situation where she is free to exercise her intelligence, her capacity for emotion, for friendship and for the deep social bonds and culture that are the hallmarks of self-aware creatures.
Instead, and because Happy could never make friends with the two elephants who shared her compound at the Bronx Zoo, she was shuffled off to what has to be among the worst tortures for any elephant: complete isolation from her own kind.
Why couldn’t she get along with Patty and Maxine? It’s true that elephants never forget, and Happy couldn’t forget that her two companions had attacked her friend Grumpy and killed him.
Happy was born in Thailand in 1971. As an infant, she was captured from her family and shipped to a zoo in Florida, where she lived for five years before being transferred to the Bronx Zoo, where she was given the I.D. # 771057. During all this time, she lived with a younger male, Grumpy, and two older females, Patty and Maxine.
Records show that in 2002 Grumpy was attacked by Patty and Maxine, and was “killed after sustaining injuries from being beaten up by them.”
No animal with the kind of cognitive abilities that Happy has demonstrated belongs in a zoo – and, worse, in a cage.
While elephants in captivity can frequently become aggressive toward each other, this kind of behavior is virtually unknown in the wild, where they live in large, well-structured social groups, presided over by older and wiser adults. That same year, another young elephant, Tus, died from an unknown ailment. Zookeepers brought in another elephant, Sammy, to keep Happy company, and the two got along very well. But Sammy died about five years later from a liver disease.
Elephants grieve deeply over the loss of loved ones. And by now Happy was becoming quite unsuited to her name and was never comfortable around Patty and Maxine. Soon she had to be separated from them, and that meant being placed in isolation.
Two weeks ago, in an extended article in the New York Post, Brad Hamilton wrote about a visit to the Bronx Zoo to see the elephants.
Happy spends most of her time indoors in a large holding facility lined with elephant cages, which are about twice the length of the animals’ bodies. The public never sees this.
On Sept. 22, after Post inquiries, Happy was finally spotted. She’d been put in the elephant exhibit — alone — while Patty and Maxine appeared mostly out of view in a separate enclosure on the opposite side of the monorail.
In a written statement, [zoo spokesperson Mary] Dixon claimed Happy was out in public “regularly.”
“Rotating animals through exhibits is part of our behavioral-enrichment efforts,” she wrote. “I am not sure, but she may even be out tomorrow. When not on exhibit, they still have time outside.”
Advocates are pushing the Bronx Zoo to fulfill its promise to shut down the elephant exhibit.
“They should do it now and send those elephants to a sanctuary,” said [Ashley] Byrne of PETA, which has been pressing the matter with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns the zoo.
But acting right now would be a financial risk.
“Zoos are concerned about a domino effect,” said Ed Stewart, co-founder of the animal-advocacy group PAWS. But he added that the Detroit Zoo is doing better than ever after closing its elephant exhibit.
The Toronto Zoo is planning to move its three elephants to the PAWS sanctuary outside Sacramento, California. And there’s continuing pressureon the Los Angeles Zoo to shut down its elephant display and move the three elephants to a sanctuary.
Meanwhile, the Nonhuman Rights Project is considering Happy as a prime candidate to be one of its first plaintiffs in court cases beginning next year to have the first nonhuman animal recognized as a legal personrather than treated as a legal thing.
Joshua Plotnik, who led the study as a graduate student in psychology at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, told the New York Post that he “hopes for the best and [is] saddened to hear of her circumstances.” We would hope that he also takes action to help set Happy free.
After all, one thing is for sure: No animal with the kind of cognitive abilities that Happy has demonstrated belongs in a zoo – and, worse, in a cage. Her right to bodily liberty is as clear as it is for humans and any other sentient being with a comparable level of consciousness.