Photo: Victor Llorente for New York Magazine / Victor Llorente
One recent morning, I headed for the Bronx in a Lyft outfitted with the plastic value of a murder room. My task: to seek the meaning of solitude with an elderly woman who has lived more or less alone for 15 years.
His name is Happy and he is an Asian elephant. Happy was captured, along with six others, in the early 1970s, “probably in Thailand,” according to Atlantic. The calves, named after Disney’s Seven Dwarfs, were sent to the United States and scattered among zoos and circuses. Happy and a companion, Grumpy, reunited at the Bronx Zoo. The facility has had a number of elephants over the years, but most of them are dead, and today there are only two: Happy and a second The biggest elephant named Patty. Due to interpersonal conflicts from the past, Happy and Patty are kept in separate pens. “I always say that these are sisters who don’t want to share the same room,” Jim Breheny, the director of the zoo, told me.
Zoo staff roam the 265 acres of the property on golf carts, and it was in the back of Breheny’s cart that I flew over flamingos and sea lions and, for some reason, a child carrying a bucket above his head. The zoo was open and teeming with visitors. I hadn’t been submerged in a crowd for months; it was intoxicating. The peacocks roamed. The headgear worn by New York women dazzled in their variety: Hasidic, Muslim, avoiding the sun, athletic, political, fashion oriented. Dippin ‘Dots everywhere.
Breheny guided us along the Bronx River, flowing calmly and brown, before heading towards Happy’s pen. The elephant area consists of two acres separated by a fence. On the one hand is happy. On the other, Patty. When we arrived, the two were standing in a corner, touching logs through the bars of the fence.
It was, should I clarify, my third time to catch a glimpse of Happy. On two previous visits, I had arrived via the monorail, which takes a donut-shaped path through “the heart of Asian nature” at around four mph and made headlines in 2012, when a man jumped from the tiger den train, where he was briefly handled but not seriously injured by a 400 pound cat. (Later, when asked why he had done it, the man’s response was enigmatic: “Everyone in life makes choices.”) Both days, Happy had stood still with her back shot, which didn’t seem to require much interpretation. This time Happy attracted attention.
Some of his guardians were there too. “Come on, Hap!” one of them, a woman named Michelle, screamed.
Happy walked over and rolled her trunk through the fence to accept a banana from the keeper’s bucket. The dynamics of an elephant’s trunk are hard to describe: imagine an octopus arm crossed with a PVC tube. In places, Happy’s skin resembled a wrinkled chamois. In others, like a callus. She smelled of hot hay and vegetation. I crouched down to look at her stomach and saw a nipple, which triggered the first of several painful thoughts: In another life, Happy could have been a mother.
Everyone except Michelle stood six feet from Happy. Not because of COVID but because the elephants at the zoo are managed using a system called ‘protected contact’, which means the animal is never in the same space as a human. (In the previous system, called “free contact,” people interacted directly with elephants – often using restraints and punishments.) Today, a barrier separates Happy from her keepers; they cross a fence to offer him fruit, cut his toenails, inject him with medicine. Happy’s bath includes a number of long-handled brushes. She was trained to respond to verbal commands.
“Rear foot lifted,” Michelle said.
Happy put one of his feet on the fence and received a banana.
“Open,” Michelle says.
Happy opened his mouth and received a carrot. Patty watched us from the far corner of her own compound.
“When people say they’re isolated, it’s just not true,” Breheny said. “They just can’t fit into the same space as each other.”
It was a curious statement to analyze. By “people,” Breheny was referring to the Nonhuman Rights Project, a non-profit organization run by lawyer and academic Steven Wise. Wise has spent the last few decades trying to rewire the way Americans think about animal rights. In 2018, his organization adopted Happy as a client, arguing that she was illegally held by the Bronx Zoo and should be granted a writ of habeas corpus. Since then, the nonprofit and the zoo have been back and forth, filing motions and affidavits and appearing before judges for oral argument in several counties. Each party is confident that they have Happy’s best interests in mind. For Wise, it’s about extending the rights to an autonomous and intelligent animal – different from a human but who deserves community and freedom no less. For the zoo, this is to remind the judges that there is no American precedent for copying the human right not to be unfairly imprisoned and to paste it on a pachyderm. So far, the courts took on the side of the zoo.
Then there is the second half of Breheny’s remark, which raises the question of what “isolation” means. Do we consider an isolated human if she lived in a pen touching distance from another human? Can you even compare an elephant to a human? For biologists, it is axiomatic that the distinction “human versus animal” is incorrect, that the binary is in fact an Earth-sized spectrum of consciousness. We are just sacks of flesh, processing information.
The unspoken argument of a zoo is that anthropomorphism is constructive fiction – a way for humans to connect with other animals and develop an interest in their destiny. Which asks a lot of a typical zoo owner. Earlier, I had lingered at a concession stand called the Pecking Order, which sells chicken offerings in front of a duck and crane pond. The smell of fried poultry mingled with the smell of living birds.
We watched Happy comply with Michelle’s requests. Seeing the large animal in its enclosure was eerie and sacred, like listening to the last speaker of a dying tongue. Will a child 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 step into the Celestial Rewards Realm.
And zoos, in general, are out of fashion. Some of this can be attributed to groups like the Non-Human Rights Project. More broadly, the public is increasingly aware of studies of animal cognition, which have advanced to a point where it can be reasonably argued that an octopus, for example, has a soul. We know elephants use tools and mourn their dead. They cooperate. They are social animals.
Historian Fay Bound Alberti has studied loneliness, and she distinguishes between negative loneliness and what was once understood as “one.” Negative loneliness, or loneliness, is painful. Oneness is just a physical state – the condition of being alone. Here we are faced with the question of whether Happy experiences loneliness or just loneliness. The Bronx Zoo’s position is that, of course, Happy can be largely denied contact with other elephants, but his connections to his human guardians are, like those Japanese companion robots or Tom Hanks’ volleyball. in Castaway, a functional substitute. The Nonhuman Rights Project’s position is that Happy is stuck in some kind of elephant Guantánamo and that every day spent there is a crime against her.
Over the past year or so, we’ve all been forced to take into account the bizarre variability of loneliness. Sometimes it felt good to be away from life. Sometimes it was disgusting. How do you measure the suffering of an elephant when we cannot even measure our own?
Happy blinked and threw dirt on his back. Michelle gave him a handful of sticks of chewing gum.
“She’s not going to eat those twigs, is she?” I asked. They looked neat.
“Oh yes, she will eat them,” Michelle said. “Or play with them. It depends.”
The monorail arrived with a new load of passengers, and Happy paid no attention to them.