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.”