Fight to Free Zoo’s Elephants Stumbles in Connecticut Court

Outside a Connecticut court where appeals judges considered a habeas petition on behalf of three captive elephants, animal rights activists used chalk to draw supportive messages for the Commerford Zoo elephants Beulah, Karen and Minnie. The chalk was mostly washed away by rain before the hearing let out Monday. (Photo by CHRISTINE STUART/Courthouse News Service)

HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — An activist group fighting to free three elephants from a Connecticut petting zoo urged an appeals court Monday to revive their case.

In the underlying case, the Non-Human Rights Project is challenging the captivity of the elephants Beulah, Karen and Minnie at the Commerford Zoo.

Just as it has for primates in other states, the group framed its suit as a petition for habeas corpus. Attorney Steven Wise said today that the group should not have to demonstrate that it has a “significant relationship” with a captive to contest its detention, but the argument appeared unlikely to sway Judge Nina Elgo. 

“I assume that a significant relationship needs to be established for jurisdiction,” Elgo said. “Why is that unreasonable?”

Wise disagreed and said no one has ever been asked before to argue their relationship in any Connecticut habeas case. 

The lawyer was quick to volley again when Judge Douglas Lavine pinned the central issue in this case as whether an elephant can be called a person under law. 

“A person in law is an entity that is capable of having rights,” Wise said, adding that personhood under the law is already extended to corporations.

This argument again proved unpalatable for Elgo.

“Wouldn’t the legislature be the more appropriate body for these issues?” Elgo asked. 

Voicing her concern that courts lack the authority to determine such issues, Elgo said there’s no “legal precedent we can rely on that says elephants are persons.” 

Wise meanwhile called it’s the duty of the court to make the determination. 

He said the courts protect autonomy, and that elephants are “autonomous beings who are so much closer to you and I than they are a firefly.” 

After the hearing, Stamford Congressman David Michel said he would try to push for legislation next year to give elephants personhood. After listening to argument, however, the Democrat said he was not convinced the ruling would be favorable. 

“They didn’t seem very friendly to this issue,” Michel said of today’s three-judge appellate panel. 

In November 2018, the Non-Human Rights Project persuaded a New York court to grant a habeas writ for an elephant in the Bronx Zoo. 

The Commerford Zoo has not retained counsel for the case and did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. 

The courtroom was packed with supporters of the elephants, whom they described as “enslaved” by the Commerford family. 

Judge Christine Keller said the group was “not really freeing three elephants, but looking to move them from one place to another.” 

“Why can’t you send them back to Africa?” Keller asked. 

Wise said they would likely die in the wild because they have been cared for by humans their entire lives. 

Lavine wondered if the elephants would be harmed if they were forced to move to a sanctuary in California and away from the handlers they have know for 30 to 35 years. 

Wise said human might also have a hard time adjusting to life outside prison too, but it’s hard to see how someone’s life is better behind bars. 

“These elephants were captured in the wild and enslaved to help work and make money for the Commerfords,” Wise said. 

In a sanctuary they would be allowed to have the “autonomy to flourish,” Wise added.

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