Animal protection organization In Defense of Animals has filed an Article 78 petition against the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to access medical records and other information pertaining to the Bronx Zoo’s captive elephants.
“The Bronx Zoo is keeping two elephants separately in solitary confinement and refusing to provide information about what effect it is having on their health and wellbeing,” says Matthew Hamity, Director of Campaigns and Legislative Affairs for In Defense of Animals. “Information about Happy and Patty legally belongs in the public domain: the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the Wildlife Conservation Society have no grounds to hide anything from the public.”
Animal Defense Partnership submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request on behalf of In Defense of Animals in February 2019. It sought the medical records for Happy and Patty, who are held separately in solitary confinement at the Bronx Zoo, as well as Maxine, who died in late 2018. The FOIL also requested other records relating to the operation of the Bronx Zoo.
The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs has so far denied In Defense of Animals’ FOIL request and administrative appeal, stating incorrectly that Wildlife Conservation Society is not an agency subject to FOIL. WCS has refused to provide any response. The WCS operates the Bronx and other zoos, which are supported by taxpayers, on behalf of New York City. WCS was incorporated by the New York state legislature in 1895 under its former name, the New York Zoological Society, to perform this function.
“It is time for the Bronx Zoo, its managing agency the Wildlife Conservation Society, and elected New York City officials responsible for the Department of Cultural Affairs meeting its legal compliance under FOIL to stop hiding the truth, whatever the medical records may reveal,” states Hamity.
The filing comes at a time when the Bronx Zoo faces mounting public pressure over its treatment of elephants. In 2018, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus, demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty and her transfer to a sanctuary.
While Patty was housed with one other elephant companion, Maxine, (who was euthanized in November 2018), Happy has been held in isolation from other elephants since 2006. The Bronx Zoo refuses to follow even the minimal requirements set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that there be at least three elephants living together. The remaining two Bronx Zoo elephants share a little over an acre of outdoor space, and are forced to take turns using it, but only when the weather allows. Most of their time is spent confined indoors.
“Ultimately, the Bronx Zoo’s treatment of elephants is unacceptable—forcing them to live in solitary confinement for many years, and in such small spaces, is tantamount to punishment,” said Fleur Dawes, Communications Director of In Defense of Animals. “Happy and Patty should be sent to accredited sanctuaries where they can retire in peace.”
The Bronx Zoo has appeared on In Defense of Animals’ respected annual list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants several times, and was the #1 Worst Zoo in 2018. The Zoo is managed on behalf of New York City by WCS, which oversees over a billion dollars in assets. The NYC Mayor and all five NYC Borough Presidents sit on the board of WCS and control tax dollars that are given to the Bronx Zoo.
In Defense of Animals’ counsel, Animal Defense Partnership and Sher Tremonte LLP, are confident that the Court will compel DCLA and WCS to produce the records, which they are legally obligated to turn over.
David Ebert, Co-Founder of Animal Defense Partnership states he is “deeply concerned about the condition and well-being of both Happy and Patty, and the refusal to produce their medical and related records only heightens our concern.”
Copies of the Article 78 Petition are available here.
Featured image: one of the elephant housed in solitary confinement at the Bronx Zoo. Image credit Carol Vinzant, CC BY-SA 2.0.