(CN) — An elephant at the center of a legal battle has died. The Eastern States Exposition on Wednesday confirmed that Beulah, one of three elephants an animal rights group was seeking to free, has died at 54.
“We are brokenhearted,” Gene Cassidy, Eastern State Exposition president, told NBC 30.
The Commerford family, which owned the captive Asian elephant, asked for time to grieve before the announcement of her death was made.
It was unclear Wednesday when Beulah died.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, which has been suing the Commerford family to free Beulah, Karen and Minnie, has asked the petting zoo for proof that Karen is still alive.
“Sadly, we have reason to believe Karen has also died while in the custody of the Commerford Zoo and have today sent a letter to the Commerford Zoo demanding that they confirm within 48 hours whether she is alive or dead,” the group said on its website. “Our fight to secure recognition of our elephants clients’ right to liberty and their release to a sanctuary will continue, in Beulah’s name and in the names of all the elephants before her who have found freedom only in death.”
The Nonhuman Rights Project has been challenging the captivity of the elephants for at least two years in Connecticut courts. A state appellate court as recently as August affirmed a ruling dismissing the case for lack of standing.
The appellate court also denied a request for an en banc hearing before all nine judges. The group argued that the three-judge panel erred in finding it lacked standing to sue on behalf of the elephants because the elephants are not legal persons. As it has for primates in other states, the group framed its suit as a habeas corpus petition.
The Nonhuman Rights Project said Beulah had not been seen for about a year before her appearance at The Big E, an annual agricultural festival in western Massachusetts.
“Prior to her appearance at the Big E, Beulah hadn’t been seen for almost a year, only to be subjected to one final round of forced labor, her suffering apparent to anyone who truly cares about elephants and doesn’t have a vested interest in exploiting them as the Commerford Zoo and Big E do,” the Nonhuman Rights Project said.
The group promised further legal action on behalf of Minnie, and “we hope, for Karen as well if she is still alive.”
The rights project said it will appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court. It also filed a Freedom of Information request for Karen’s death certificate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The Commerford family, which has not retained legal counsel in the lawsuit, did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment.