A lawyer

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KARIN BRULLIARD karin.brulliard@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­tonpost.com/ news/ an­i­malia

pe­ti­tioned to re­lease three ele­phants from a zoo, say­ing they are “le­gal per­sons” with a right to lib­erty.

Min­nie, Beu­lah and Karen are ele­phants who for decades have be­longed to a fam­ily-owned trav­el­ing zoo in Connecticut. Over the years, they’ve also been hired out for ap­pear­ances in ad­ver­tise­ments, movies and wed­dings.

And this week, they got a lawyer, though they did not ask for one. The prom­i­nent an­i­mal rights at­tor­ney Steven Wise filed a writ of habeas cor­pus pe­ti­tion on be­half of the ele­phants, ar­gu­ing that they are “le­gal per­sons” with a right to bod­ily lib­erty and ask­ing the Connecticut Su­pe­rior Court to order their re­lease to a sanc­tu­ary.

Wise and his le­gal group, the Non­hu­man Rights Project, have un­suc­cess­fully made this ar­gu­ment sev­eral times be­fore in New York, where their plain­tiffs were chim­panzees. As in those cases, the ele­phant law­suit cites a wide body of sci­en­tific re­search es­tab­lish­ing the species’s ad­vanced cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties and com­plex so­cial lives — ev­i­dence of what the le­gal team says is the ele­phants’ “au­ton­omy.”

If the court granted a writ, it would be al­low­ing the ele­phants to chal­lenge the le­gal­ity of their de­ten­tion and ac­knowl­edg­ing their “per­son­hood.” That could usher in pro­found changes in le­gal sta­tus for an­i­mals, which are considered prop­erty in the eyes of the law.

Tim Com­mer­ford, owner of the Com­mer­ford Zoo, said he had not seen the law­suit. The three ele­phants range in age from 33 to 50 and have all be­longed to the zoo for at least 30 years, he said. “They’re part of our fam­ily.”

Le­gal per­son­hood is a term that is not re­served for hu­mans. U.S. courts have de­ter­mined that cor­po­ra­tions can be le­gal per­sons, and a New Zealand court has ex­tended the la­bel to a river. Courts in Ar­gentina and Colom­bia have also rec­og­nized le­gal per­son­hood for chim­panzees and a bear. But the Non­hu­man Rights Project’s pre­vi­ous at­tempts in New York have been stymied by rul­ings that re­jected per­son­hood for chimps based on the an­i­mals’ in­abil­ity to bear le­gal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and so­cial du­ties.

In an in­ter­view Mon­day, Wise said he hopes the Connecticut court will view the is­sue more fa­vor­ably. What’s more, he said, ele­phants might stand a bet­ter chance than chimps, in part be­cause “apes are so close to us that it makes some peo­ple un­com­fort­able.”

“Judges may view us in a dif­fer­ent way when we’re deal­ing with an an­i­mal that doesn’t look any­thing like us but has many of the same char­ac­ter­is­tics,” Wise said. Those char­ac­ter­is­tics are ex­plained in af­fi­davits from lead­ing ele­phant ex­perts that cite the an­i­mals’ em­pa­thy, self-aware­ness and long-term mem­ory, as well as one Wise said de­served special at­ten­tion: an abil­ity to use calls and ges­tures to dis­cuss, plan and ex­e­cute a course of ac­tion.

Com­mer­ford, the zoo owner, con­curred that ele­phants are un­usu­ally in­tel­li­gent. But he said Beu­lah, Min­nie and Karen have am­ple space and stim­u­la­tion. Re­mov­ing them would be akin to tak­ing away a house cat that is “comfy at your house,” he said. He re­ferred to Wise and his team as “an­i­mal ex­trem­ists” who “are pick­ing on us and tar­get­ing us be­cause we’re a small, fam­i­ly­owned op­er­a­tion and ev­ery­thing we do is on our own nickel.”

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