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En Banc Review Sought in Connecticut Elephant Rights Case

By Lauren Choplin

The Nonhuman Rights Project’s legal battle to free three elephants held captive in a Connecticut-based traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo continues amid growing concerns about the elephants’ well-being, including the possibility at least one of them has died.

The NhRP has filed a motion for en banc reconsideration, which asks all nine judges of the Connecticut Appellate Court to review an appellate decision issued August 20th in one of the NhRP’s two ongoing elephant rights cases in Connecticut, both brought on behalf of elephants Beulah, Karen, and Minnie. In that decision, a three-judge panel erroneously found the NhRP lacked standing to sue on behalf of the elephants because they are not legal persons.

Citing to cases of enslaved human beings freed from unlawful imprisonment via common law writs of habeas corpus, including the seminal decision of Jackson v. Bulloch, the NhRP argues en banc review is necessary because the decision directly conflicts with controlling Connecticut Supreme Court and Appellate Court precedent.

As detailed in the motion, the NhRP’s standing does not depend on the elephants having standing, and in having asserted that the elephants are not legal persons, the panel wrongly determined the merits of the case without the NhRP having had the opportunity to adequately address them. Moreover, the elephants are already considered legal persons under Connecticut’s pet trust statute; their status as beneficiaries of a trust, set up by the NhRP to help facilitate their release to a sanctuary, “does not turn on their capacity to bear duties and responsibilities; neither should their right to bodily liberty so turn.”

The filing of the motion comes just ahead of the annual Big E fair in West Springfield, MA, where the Commerford Zoo is expected to transport one or more of the elephants along with dozens of other nonhuman animals to serve as human entertainment. The Commerford Zoo’s presence at last year’s Big E prompted widespread outrage among many fairgoers, who were troubled by the animals’ visibly poor health and treatment, particularly Minnie limping as she was forced to give rides and a Commerford Zoo employee yanking a camel named Lurch up from the ground.

Atypically for the Commerford Zoo, which frequently transports all three elephants to circuses and fairs across the Northeast, Beulah and Karen haven’t been seen in public for a year, prompting concerns about their whereabouts and health.

“We’re especially troubled by the possibility that one or both of the elephants have died,” said Courtney Fern, the NhRP’s Director of Government Relations and Campaigns. “If this is indeed the case, we urge the Commerford Zoo to confirm it. Certainly, the nearly 350,000 people who’ve signed our petition to free the elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary, as well as the many area residents who’ve been concerned for years about the elephants’ well-being, would appreciate knowing what has happened.”

Protests led by Western Mass. Animal Rights Advocates (WMARA) and Connecticut Residents Seeking Sanctuary for the Commerford Animals are again planned for this year’s Big E. Both groups support the NhRP’s litigation and grassroots advocacy campaigns.

“Elephants don’t exist for our entertainment. They belong in the wild or in sanctuaries where they can roam freely with no bullhooks in sight,” said Sheryl Becker, founder of WMARA. “Despite what the Commerford Zoo claims, it isn’t eductional to see Beulah, Karen, and Minnie suffer as they do at fairs like the Big E. They need to be released to PAWS.”

The USDA has cited the Commerford Zoo over 50 times  for failing to adhere to the minimum standards required by the Animal Welfare Act, including failing to provide the elephants with adequate veterinary care. Yelp reviews describe the elephants as “sedated,” “sick,” and “sad,” the facilities as “filthy” and a “stockyard of despair,” and the experience itself “an abomination.”

To learn more about Beulah, Karen, and Minnie and the NhRP’s litigation on their behalf, visit this page. To view the NhRP’s petition urging the Commerford Zoo to release the elephants to PAWS sanctuary, visit this page. 

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