If the elephant Happy became a legal entity, what would change?

And it is not their morality that is at stake. No, the debate on the “moral” personality of animals, revived across the Atlantic by the Nonhumans Rights Project (NHRP), is above all a matter of law. In this case, the association believes that Happy, a 51-year-old elephant from the Bronx Zoo in New York, sees her rights and basic needs violated, namely walking around in the company of her peers. However, since it is not a legal person, Happy theoretically has no rights. You didn’t understand anything about this business of legal person? What would be the difference for Happy? Is the elephant the symbol of a new question? 20 minutes takes stock with Ludivine Vandevoorde, animal law lawyer.

What is legal personality?

In the law, everything is a matter of the box in which you fit, according to well-defined texts. Also, “in France, we distinguish between property and people since Roman law”, establishes Ludivine Vandevoorde, animal law lawyer. Then, there are two categories of persons: natural persons, human beings in flesh and blood, “taken in their individuality” and legal persons, which can be groups or companies, to whom “we attribute this personality of fictitious manner”, with rights and duties. In most countries, including France, animals are considered property.

What would the recognition of this legal personality change?

Many animal rights associations want habeas corpus, an international legal concept that only applies to natural persons, to be extended to animals. This sets out a fundamental freedom, namely the fact that “no one shall be detained or arrested arbitrarily”, explains the lawyer. If this principle applied to animals, it would be a big blow to zoos, circuses…

“Recognition of legal personality could involve extending protection to all wild animals” in the long term, believes Ludivine Vandevoorde. Ecuador has already taken this step, recognizing habeas corpus in a monkey, says the lawyer. In France, the 2015 reform “recognizes animals as living beings endowed with sensitivity, but they are still under the property regime”. And again, this recognition only exists in the Civil Code, but not in the Agricultural Code. “Today, the law only protects domestic animals,” she insists. Legal personality for wild animals could on the contrary give them the right not to be hunted.

How is the case of the elephant Happy a symbol of the fight for animal rights?

This is not the first time that associations want to recognize the legal personality of Happy. In November 2020, other activists had taken similar steps, with a shocking argument: Happy successfully passed the mirror test. A scientific experiment intended to know if the animal recognizes itself in a mirror, and thus is aware of existing, of its status of being unique in the world. An aptitude that we thought was reserved, before Happy, for humans, chimpanzees and dolphins.

But in truth, “the question is not new”, points out Ludivine Vandevoorde, underlining the numerous studies on the subject over the past thirty years. “There is considerable progress as business progresses, we tend towards this recognition”, and “the look changes”, she believes. But the debate still agitates lawyers: “Do you need a legal personality to grant protection and rights? The lawyer underlines the “inconsistency” of the current system, where goods are sensitive and where domestic animals are protected, but not wild animals.

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