43 Minutes With Happy the Elephant

Meditations on loneliness with the Bronx Zoo’s 50-year-old Elephas maximus.

Photo: Victor Llorente for New York Magazine/Victor Llorente
Photo: Victor Llorente for New York Magazine/Victor Llorente

One recent morning, I zipped toward the Bronx in a Lyft outfitted with a murder room’s worth of plastic. My task: to seek the meaning of solitude from an elderly female who has lived alone, more or less, for 15 years.

Her name is Happy, and she is an Asian elephant. Happy was captured, along with six others, in the early 1970s, “probably in Thailand,” according to The Atlantic. The calves, named after Disney’s seven dwarves, were sent to the U.S. and dispersed among zoos and circuses. Happy and a companion, Grumpy, ended up at the Bronx Zoo. The facility has had a number of elephants over the years, but they have mostly died off, and today there are just two: Happy and a second Elephas maximus named Patty. Owing to interpersonal conflicts of the past, Happy and Patty are kept in separate enclosures. “I always say they’re like sisters who don’t want to share the same room,” Jim Breheny, the zoo’s director, told me.

Zoo personnel travel the property’s 265 acres on golf carts, and it was on the back of Breheny’s cart that I flew past flamingos and sea lions and, for some reason, a kid wearing a bucket over his head. The zoo was open and teeming with visitors. I hadn’t been submerged in a crowd in months; it was intoxicating. Peacocks roamed. The head coverings worn by the females of New York City dazzled in their variety: Hasidic, Muslim, sun-avoidant, sporty, political, fashion-oriented. Dippin’ Dots everywhere.

Breheny steered us along the Bronx River, flowing calmly and brownly, before pulling up to Happy’s pen. The elephant area consists of two acres split by a fence. On one side is Happy. On the other, Patty. When we arrived, the two were standing in a corner, touching trunks through the fence’s bars.

It was, I should clarify, my third time glimpsing Happy. On two earlier visits, I’d arrived by the monorail, which travels a doughnut-shaped path into “the heart of the Asian wilderness” at about four mph and which last made headlines in 2012, when a man leaped from the train into a tiger den, where he was briefly handled but not seriously harmed by a 400-pound cat. (Later, when asked why he’d done it, the man’s reply was enigmatic: “Everybody in life makes choices.”) Both days, Happy had been standing motionless with her back turned, which didn’t seem to require a lot of interpretation. This time, Happy perked to attention.

Some of her keepers were there, too. “C’mere, Hap!” one of them, a woman named Michelle, yelled.

Happy walked over and coiled her trunk through the fence to accept a banana from the keeper’s bucket. The dynamics of an elephant trunk are tough to describe: Imagine an octopus arm crossed with a PVC tube. In some places, Happy’s skin looked like wrinkled chamois. In others, like a callus. She smelled of warm hay and vegetation. I squatted down to look up at her belly and spied a nipple, which sparked the first of several sorrowful thoughts: In another life, Happy could have been a mother.

Everyone except Michelle stood six feet from Happy. Not because of COVID but because elephants at the zoo are managed using a system called “protected contact,” which means that the animal is never in the same space as a human. (In the previous system, called “free contact,” people interacted directly with elephants — often with the use of restraints and punishments.) These days, a barrier separates Happy from her keepers; they reach through a fence to offer her fruit, trim her toenails, inject her medicine. Happy’s bath involves a number of long-handled brushes. She has been trained to respond to verbal commands.

“Rear foot up,” said Michelle.

Happy put one of her feet on the fence and was awarded a banana.

“Open,” Michelle said.

Happy opened her mouth and received a carrot. Patty eyed us from the far corner of her own enclosure.

“When people say they’re in isolation, it’s just not true,” Breheny said. “They just can’t get in the same space as each other.”

This was a curious statement to parse. By “people,” Breheny was referring to the Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit led by the lawyer and scholar Steven Wise. Wise has spent the past few decades trying to rewire the way Americans conceive of animal rights. In 2018, his organization adopted Happy as a client, arguing that she was being unlawfully detained by the Bronx Zoo and ought to be granted a writ of habeas corpus. Since then, the nonprofit and the zoo have gone back and forth, filing motions and affidavits and going before judges for oral argument in multiple counties. Each side is certain it has Happy’s best interests in mind. For Wise, the case is a matter of extending rights to an autonomous, intelligent animal — different from a human but no less deserving of community and freedom. For the zoo, it is a matter of reminding judges that there is no U.S. precedent for copying the human right not to be wrongfully imprisoned and pasting it onto a pachyderm. So far, the courts have taken the zoo’s side.

Then there is the second half of Breheny’s remark, which raises the question of what “isolation” means. Would we consider a human isolated if she lived in a pen within touching distance of another human? Can you even compare an elephant to a human? For biologists, it is axiomatic that the “human versus animal” distinction is incorrect, that the binary is in fact an Earth-size spectrum of consciousness. We’re all just bags of flesh, processing information.

The tacit argument of a zoo is that anthropomorphism is a constructive fiction — a way for humans to connect with other animals and develop a stake in their fates. Which is asking a lot of a typical zoo patron. Earlier, I’d lingered by a concession stand called the Pecking Order, which sells chicken tenders across the path from a duck-and-crane pond. The smell of fried poultry mingled with the smell of live birds.

We watched as Happy complied with Michelle’s requests. Seeing the great animal in her pen felt ominous and sacred, like listening to the last speaker of a dying language. Will a kid born in New York City in 2021 grow up to see elephants at the Bronx Zoo? Probably not. The facility has announced that it has no plans to import more elephants after Happy and Patty ascend to the sphere of celestial rewards.

And zoos, in general, are falling out of fashion. Part of that can be attributed to groups like the Non-human Rights Project. More broadly, the public is increasingly aware of animal-cognition studies, which have advanced to a point where one can plausibly argue that an octopus, for example, has a soul. We know that elephants use tools and mourn their dead. They cooperate. They are social animals.

The historian Fay Bound Alberti has studied loneliness, and she makes a distinction between negative solitude and what was once understood as “oneliness.” Negative solitude, or loneliness, is painful. Oneliness is just a physical state — the condition of being by yourself. Here we face the question of whether Happy is experiencing loneliness or merely oneliness. The position of the Bronx Zoo is that, sure, Happy may be largely denied contact with other elephants, but her bonds with her human keepers are, like those Japanese companion robots or Tom Hanks’s volleyball in Cast Away, a functional substitute. The position of the Nonhuman Rights Project is that Happy is stuck in a kind of elephant Guantánamo and every day spent there is a crime against her being.

In the past year, we’ve all been forced to reckon with the bizarre variability of loneliness. Sometimes it felt good to be estranged from life. Sometimes it was loathsome. How can we measure an elephant’s suffering when we can’t even measure our own?

Happy blinked and threw some dirt on her back. Michelle gave her a handful of sweet-gum branches.

“She’s not going to eat those twigs, is she?” I asked. They looked sharp.

“Oh yeah, she’ll eat them,” Michelle said. “Or mess with them. It depends.”

The monorail came around with a fresh load of passengers, and Happy paid them no attention.

Meditations on Loneliness With Happy the Elephant