Today at a press conference in Hartford hosted by Connecticut State Representative David Michel, NhRP Director of Government Relations and Campaigns Courtney Fern urged lawmakers to join the NhRP, Rep. Michel and Rep. Anne Hughes, and CT residents in calling on the Commerford Zoo to release Minnie to an accredited elephant sanctuary. Below is Courtney’s statement:
In the past six months, two of the three elephants held captive at and exploited by the Goshen-based traveling circus called the Commerford Zoo have died.
Last month Beulah, a 54-year-old Asian elephant, collapsed multiple times before dying at Massachusetts’s Big E Fair after her captors forced her to work and earn money for them one last time.
Under constant threat of a bullhook—an instrument designed to control and subdue elephants by inflicting pain on them—and fear of other physical violence, the Commerford Zoo exploited her for their financial gain for close to half a century. The day before Beulah’s death, people saw her lying down in obvious distress, finding whatever comfort she could on a small patch of grass in the middle of a loud parking lot.
Six months before Beulah’s death, one of the elephants held captive with her, a 38-year-old African elephant named Karen, died under currently unknown circumstances. The Commerford Zoo chose to conceal her death from the public and ignored repeated calls to confirm whether she was still alive. Karen was a middle-aged elephant who should have lived well into her sixties like her wild counterparts. The last time Karen was seen in public, in July 2018 at a fair in New Jersey, fairgoers were alarmed by her poor appearance and treatment, observing Commerford Zoo employees stabbing a bullhook repeatedly into her skin and forcing her to give rides to groups of adults and children on hard asphalt with few breaks.
I am here today to call for freedom and sanctuary for the sole surviving Commerford elephant. Her name is Minnie. She is a wild-born Asian elephant who was torn from her herd in Thailand when she was a baby. Like Beulah and Karen, servitude has defined her life at the Commerford Zoo.
For the past 43 years, the Commerford Zoo has transported her to events across the Northeast where she has been forced to perform tricks and give rides. When she is not laboring at these events, she is kept on the Commerford Zoo property where she appears to spend most of her time in a small, dark barn with limited access to the outdoors. Minnie is now alone, without the necessary companionship of other elephants. In the wild, Minnie would live in a large matriarchal herd, likely with offspring of her own, roaming the Thai forests. Instead, she is languishing in isolation. Through the courts and a grassroots campaign, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been advocating for Minnie’s right to liberty and release to a sanctuary for one unshakable reason: it is immoral and unjust to force her or any elephant to live this way.
The ultimate source of captive elephant suffering is the overall lack of biologically relevant mental stimulation and physical activity. Elephants are intelligent and vigorous beings who have evolved in expansive and complex physical and social environments. Elephants are designed to move, with wild elephants walking over 20 miles a day. Walking to stay well applies to more than just an elephant’s physical health. Elephants in small spaces with little mental and physical stimulation often exhibit stereotypic behavior, such as rocking and swaying. Both Minnie and Karen were observed on multiple occasions engaging in stereotypic swaying, indicative of stress and mental anguish.
Like all elephants and all autonomous beings, including humans, Minnie needs freedom and suffers every day she is without it.
At the Commerford Zoo, Minnie has little to no freedom of movement, is controlled by a bullhook, lives in a climate that is inappropriate for elephants, is now without the company of other elephants, and has a history of receiving inadequate veterinary care. Everything about the life the Commerford Zoo is forcing her to lead is known to cause enormous suffering in elephants. The Commerford Zoo has merely kept Minnie alive; nothing about her existence resembles what is necessary to meet her basic physical and psychological needs.
But another life is still possible for her.
Both U.S. elephant sanctuaries—the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and the Performing Animal Welfare Society—have agreed to provide Minnie with lifelong care and refuge at no cost to the Commerford Zoo. These sanctuaries specialize in meeting the physical and psychological needs of elephants. The Commerford Zoo specializes in their exploitation.
At The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, for example, Minnie would be able to roam freely in one of three areas that comprise a 2,700-acre habitat with year-round access to the outdoors, including spring-fed lakes, pastures, and woodlands. At the Performing Animal Welfare Society, Minnie would likewise have access to ample space to roam and topographic features and stimuli required for her emotional and physical wellbeing. At both sanctuaries, she would have the freedom to choose how to spend her time and with whom, with no bullhook in sight.
It is abhorrent that the Commerford Zoo denied Beulah and Karen the opportunity to find peace and dignity in a sanctuary, choosing instead to exploit them and force them to work under threat of physical violence until the very end of their deeply impoverished lives.
The USDA has cited the Commerford Zoo over 50 times for failing to adhere to the minimum standards required by the Animal Welfare Act, yet they were allowed to continue operating and keep their license, still retaining it as of today, despite two elephants in their custody dying within the past 6 months. This too is abhorrent.
The Commerford Zoo claims Minnie is like family to them, yet they continue to treat her like property, forcing her to earn her keep by giving rides to strangers.
I am asking the Commerford family, if they really care about Minnie, to act in her best interest and release her to either The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or The Performing Animal Welfare Society. The Nonhuman Rights Projects remains ready to help facilitate her transfer.
I would like to thank Jill Alibrandi and Annie Hornish for being a voice for both the Commerford elephants and for your fellow Connecticut residents who don’t want elephants to suffer in your state. Thank you Representatives Michel and Hughes both for caring about and publicly calling for freedom and sanctuary for Minnie. I ask other lawmakers to do the same. I call on the Governor Lamont to be the leader he was elected to be and respond to the thousands of concerned citizens who have reached out to your office about the urgent welfare concerns regarding Minnie. Lastly, to the state and federal agencies that failed Beulah and Karen, do not shirk your responsibility once again. Ensure that Minnie does not suffer the same fate as her companions.
To help us free Minnie to a sanctuary and end for good the imprisonment and exploitation of elephants in circuses, please take action today:
- Massachusetts residents: call your state representatives and ask them to support H.2934 and S.2028.
- Connecticut residents: call Governor Ned Lamont and your state representative and ask them to publicly call on the Commerford Zoo to send Minnie to an accredited elephant sanctuary.
- MA residents, CT residents, and people who live outside MA, CT, and/or the US: sign and share our Change.org petition urging the Commerford Zoo to release Minnie to an accredited sanctuary. Send a short, polite email to the Commerford Zoo at email@example.com, urging them to release Minnie to an accredited sanctuary. Help us share the story of Minnie’s plight via social media with the hashtag #FreeTheCommerfordElephants and/or #RumbleForRights.