First-ever animal rights lawsuit filed on behalf of zoo elephants

Pachyderms are people, too.

That’s the argument being made by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which filed the first-ever animal rights lawsuit this week on behalf of captive elephants in Connecticut — claiming they are legal “persons” who deserve to be in sanctuaries, not zoos.

The nonprofit organization believes that because the creatures are autonomous beings, who live “emotionally, socially, and cognitively complex lives,” they have a fundamental right to be set free from the Commerford Zoo in Goshen.

Lawyers for the group are specifically requesting that their “elephant clients” — Beulah, Karen and Minnie — be released and sent the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 natural habitat sanctuary in California, “where their right to bodily liberty will be respected.”

They announced the filing on Monday in a press release, saying they were seeking a common law writ of habeas corpus in Connecticut Superior Court.

“This is not an animal welfare case,” explained attorney Steven M. Wise, president and founder of the NhRP.

“We do not claim the Commerford Zoo is violating any animal welfare statutes,” he said. “What they are doing is depriving Beulah, Karen, and Minnie of their freedom, which we see as an inherently cruel violation of their most fundamental right as elephants. If Connecticut common law courts truly value autonomy, as previous rulings suggest they do, they too will see their situation in this light and order the elephants’ release from captivity. ”

The NhRP says it has been working with “world-renowned elephant experts” to learn more about what needs to be done to protect the rights of the animals — including Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss, who have both submitted affidavits in support of the suit.

“Our understanding of elephants has only deepened over time: for example, we know they have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, engage in complex communication, show empathy, and mourn their dead. But their legal status as ‘things’ with no rights has remained exactly the same. What’s at stake here is the freedom of beings who are no less self-aware and autonomous than we humans are,” said David Zabel, the NhRP’s local counsel in Connecticut and a partner at the law firm of Cohen & Wolf.

Steven M. Wise, president and founder of the NhRP, added, “Common law courts must catch up to what we know about members of this extraordinarily complex species and how they suffer — precisely because they are autonomous — when businesses like Commerford force them to perform at circuses and fairs and live in environments completely unsuited to their needs. The time has come for them to be.”


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