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Shining a light for Minnie the elephant

By Courtney Fern

In the small town of Goshen, Connecticut, an elephant stands alone on cement in a dark barn. Rocking from side to side to comfort herself, she sometimes stops to extend her trunk out from behind the thick iron bars that keep her confined to one corner of this already tiny, barren space. 

If she was a human instead of an elephant, we would call this space a prison cell. The proprietors of the Commerford Zoo–the traveling circus that “owns” this majestic being–consider this existence to be Minnie’s retirement, and they consider themselves to be her family: as if, for decades, she had labored for them by choice instead of under threat of a bullhook, and as if she hadn’t been torn from her elephant family long ago to be forced to perform in circuses, fairs, commercials, and countless other money-making opportunities.

Minnie is the NhRP client about whom we most often receive emails, and we understand why. Especially following the deaths of elephants Beulah and Karen, which left her alone at the Commerford Zoo, her situation is so awful, so upsetting that it is difficult to accept that it is not fundamentally illegal. The fact that it remains perfectly legal, with the relevant authorities giving the benefit of the doubt time and time again to the Commerford Zoo when it is obvious Minnie is suffering, is exactly why we fight for elephants’ right to liberty.

What we’re doing to help Minnie

It’s been several months since we last shared an update on Minnie, but we want you to know we continue to do all we can both to shine a light into the prison cell where she appears to spend most of her days and, against all hope, get her out of there for good. 

As part of my role at the NhRP as our Director of Government Relations and Campaigns and also, frankly, because of how personally outraged I am by the Commerford Zoo’s treatment of Minnie, Beulah, and Karen, I dedicate time every week, including my own personal time, to research and outreach that could, in however small a way, help Minnie. 

Any time we find new information on Minnie or the Commerford Zoo, we turn it over to the appropriate agencies and share it with other advocates.

Any time we identify an opportunity to collaborate with other organizations and advocates who are working to free Minnie (and who are encountering the same obstacles and lack of any action on the part of relevant authorities), we do so. 

Any time we identify an opportunity for grassroots advocacy, we disseminate it out locally and nationally.

Most recently, we’ve supported different versions of a traveling animal act ban that has been introduced for the past few legislative sessions in Connecticut. Unfortunately, despite the hard work and dedication of many local advocates, the bill did not advance out of the Environment Committee this session. It will have to be reintroduced next year. It may be redrafted, which is likely given the strong opposition it faced this year from Mystic Aquarium and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Also, reintroduction is not a guarantee. We will continue to support state and local traveling animals act bans in Connecticut.

A look back on efforts to help Minnie

Over the past few years we have engaged with every single state, local, and federal agency that has oversight authority for the Commerford Zoo. We have presented them with evidence that Minnie is suffering, that her needs are not being met, and requested that, at a minimum, they conduct a welfare check on her. We have worked with state and federal lawmakers on actions to help free Minnie to a sanctuary. We have spoken with law enforcement about available options for helping Minnie. We have given public statements before local and state governing bodies requesting them to use their oversight authority to ensure Minnie’s needs are being met.

None of it has amounted to much because, at the end of the day, Minnie remains the property of the Commerford Zoo and a legal “thing” with no rights, with the Connecticut courts showing no interest in even considering that it is simply wrong to subject an elephant to this sort of life. That is why the best thing we can do for Minnie for the foreseeable future is to look out for any animal welfare violations that might trigger a meaningful investigation or sustained media attention, even though these violations have not done so in the past. 

We do know that, as of March of 2023, Minnie is still alive. The last USDA inspection conducted on the Commerford Zoo property was on March 9, 2023 and she was noted as being present during the inspection. Of course, that she is alive doesn’t mean she is actually living. 

We know so many of our supporters are concerned about Minnie. Thank you. We are too. Please keep an eye on your inbox for more regular updates on her and opportunities to help. For now, the best way to help is to share her story. 

It’s infuriating and upsetting to me and to everyone at the NhRP to know how much Minnie is suffering and that no one with the power to help her will do so. While there are times that even I feel defeated, I imagine Minnie in that dark barn, alone, surely remembering Beulah, Karen, and the herd she was once part of, and I think of how she needs every voice possible calling for her freedom. As emotionally difficult as it has been and will be, we appreciate you being one of these voices. 

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