Judge denies petition to free elephants from Connecticut zoo

Judge James Bentivegna denied a petition seeking to free three elephants from the Commerford Zoo Tuesday, rejecting the argument that the animals should be granted legal personhood.

The Nonhuman Rights Project filed the lawsuit in November, with the hopes of garnering a writ of habeas corpus for three elephants from the Goshen zoo — Beulah, Karen and Minnie.

The Florida-based group contended that, considering their cognitive abilities and sense of self, the animals should be considered autonomous beings and thus legal persons who cannot be detained under the law.

Its petition included an overview of research into the herbivores’ world view, pointing to a series of abilities possessed by elephants, including the ability to plan, communicate, have an awareness of self and of others, solve problems, understand causation and engage in teaching to pass down knowledge, claiming these as examples of their “complex cognitive abilities sufficient for common law personhood and the common law right to bodily liberty, as a matter of common law liberty, equality, or both under Connecticut common law.”

Bentivegna denied the group’s petition for a writ of habeas, writing that “the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and the petition is wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms.”

This decision was based on two conclusions, Bentivegna said — one, that the group did not have a prior relationship with the three elephants, and thus did not have standing to bring the petition; and two, that there was no precedent for providing elephants the rights of legal personhood.

Unlike in New York, where a court found the Nonhuman Rights Project had legal standing to pursue the release of two chimpanzees in 2015, Bentivegna wrote that Connecticut law does not specifically note that habeas petitions can be filed on the behalf of individuals in noncriminal custody.

They can be filed for those considered parents or legal guardians of a child — Bentivegna noted that the Nonhuman Rights Project were not the parents of the elephants, writing that “the Commerford family (is) more akin to the parents of Beulah, Minnie and Karen” —or those found to have “next friend” status.

Bentivegna wrote that “next friend” status requires that the individual imprisoned cannot file for a petition on their own, that the petitioner must be dedicated to the individual’s best interests and that the petitioner have some pre-existing relationship with the imprisoned person.

“Because the petitioner has failed to allege that it possesses any relationship with the elephants, the petitioner lacks standing,” said Bentivegna.

In its petition, the Nonhuman Rights Project argued that people who were “strangers” to the confined individual had standing to file habeas petitions under state law, and that Connecticut procedural statutes continued such a common-law tradition.

Bentivegna also declined to grant elephants the status of legal personhood, as such a claim has not been previously established through precedent.

“Does the petitioner’s theory that an elephant is a person entitled to those same liberties extended to you or I have a possibility or probability of victory? The petitioner is unable to point to any authority which has held so, but instead relies on basic human rights of freedom and equality, and points to expert averments of similarities between elephants and human beings as evidence that this court must forge new law,” said Bentivegna. “Based on the law as it stands today, this court cannot so find.”

In its petition, the Nonhuman Rights Project pointed to past instances where courts have granted non-human actors and objects the rights of legal personhood, indicating that four past instances, including the case of the New York chimpanzees, meant that the case had a possibility of victory, and argued that such a decision would be in accordance with Connecticut common law.

Bentivegna noted statutes pertaining to animal cruelty “as a potential alternative method of ensuring the well-being of any animal.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project noted but did not use past allegations of animal cruelty as the basis of its suit.

Steven Wise, founder and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, said in a statement Wednesday that the group planned to appeal Bentivegna’s decision. This was later retracted by the group.

Jennifer Fermino of the Fenton communications agency, working on behalf of the group, said late Wednesday that the Nonhuman Rights Project was reviewing the decision and would issue another statement in the future.

Representatives of R.W. Commerford & Sons could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

Tim Commerford, co-owner of the Commerford Zoo, has previously called the lawsuit “preposterous” and “far-fetched,” and described it as a ploy for money and media attention. The elephants are appropriately cared for, he has said.

“If I don’t see them on a daily basis, I’m thinking about them, because I grew up with them all my life,” he said. “They’re family. The animal activists can say what they want about it, but they’re part of our family.”


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