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Next Steps in Connecticut Elephant Rights Case

By Spencer Lo

The Nonhuman Rights Project never gives up on our clients. At stake are their lives and freedom as well as our most cherished values and principles of justice, which are undermined every day they remain imprisoned and exploited.

In that spirit, today we took our next steps in our Connecticut elephant rights litigation following a recent decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court (the state’s highest court) not to hear our appeal on behalf of Minnie, who is now our sole surviving Connecticut client following the recent deaths of Beulah and Karen.

First, some background: as you may recall, since June of 2018, we have had two ongoing cases on behalf of these three elephants, who have been held captive for decades in a Goshen-based traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo.

In November of 2017, we filed our first habeas corpus petition challenging the lawfulness of the elephants’ imprisonment (Petition I), and a little over six months later, we filed our second (Petition II).

Why did we file two petitions?

Rather than wait until Petition I was fully resolved on appeal and to avoid undue delay, we filed Petition II after Judge James Bentivegna, of the Litchfield Superior Court, erroneously dismissed Petition I primarily on standing grounds. Supporting us in our efforts was Mark A. Dubois, a Connecticut attorney and expert in legal ethics and professional responsibility who served as Connecticut’s Chief Disciplinary Counsel for nearly a decade. In his affidavit, Dubois stated that the NhRP’s litigation “is not frivolous, in whole or in part” (as Judge Bentivegna had claimed) and urged the court to allow Petition II to proceed to resolution.

At this point, then, we had two cases on behalf of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie. With the support of experts in habeas corpus and philosophy, we continued to seek a hearing on the merits in both cases, i.e. the opportunity to argue on the record for recognition of the elephants’ right to liberty and release to a sanctuary.

For the last year, we have repeatedly sought review of Judge Bentivegna’s dismissal of Petition I, which was based on serious and reversible errors of law. These efforts culminated in us asking the Connecticut Supreme Court to hear our appeal of the Appellate Court’s recent decision which affirmed the dismissal of Petition I on standing grounds. This past Friday, we learned that it decided not to do so. Obviously, this news was disappointing. However, the court’s refusal to grant our appeal doesn’t mean it disagrees with us or won’t eventually hear our second case on behalf of Minnie.

What’s next

Fortunately, because of Petition II, Minnie still has the opportunity to have her long overdue day in court. In August, we filed our appellate brief in this second case following Judge Dan Shaban’s erroneous dismissal of Petition II, and we look forward to oral argument before the Appellate Court.

Because the Appellate Court, as part of these proceedings, will likely have to address its recent decision regarding Petition I, we just filed a motion asking for permission to file a supplemental brief to address our standing to sue (in our Petition II brief, we didn’t address standing because Judge Shaban didn’t dismiss Petition II on the basis of standing). As we told the court, we should be afforded the opportunity to address the standing issue before it rules on our second appeal.

Additionally, because we remain concerned about the likelihood of the Commerford Zoo moving Minnie to Florida or otherwise out of the jurisdiction of the Connecticut courts, we have also filed a motion for a temporary injunction to prevent it from moving her out of state while her appeal is pending.

As we await decisions on these filings, we and the hundreds of thousands of other people outraged by the Commerford Zoo’s imprisonment and exploitation of elephants will continue to urge elected officials to do the right thing and help free Minnie to a sanctuary before it is too late. Unlike Beulah, who collapsed and died at the Big E fair, and unlike Karen, who died in currently unknown circumstances, another life is still possible for Minnie—a life where, thanks to the freedom and healing that sanctuaries provide, her years of forced labor can become, for her, a painful memory and, for the state of Connecticut, an injustice finally remedied.

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