On September 12, 2019, the Nonhuman Rights Project submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for any records on or related to the elephants owned by the Commerford Zoo from January 2018 to the date that the USDA commenced its record search (which ended up being October 22, 2019). Here are the record productions we received and the accompanying letters.
The records are scant and reveal no new information. They include animal welfare complaints received by the USDA, details of any investigation into the complaints, inspection reports, animal inventory lists, and travel itineraries. Not included in the records was any mention of the deaths of Beulah or Karen.
What the records do show is that there is no meaningful federal oversight of Minnie’s welfare. Additionally, they highlight the USDA’s fundamental lack of understanding about elephants. In response to an animal welfare complaint filed in September 2018 about concerns for Minnie’s health after she was observed at the Big E Fair, the USDA conducted an inspection of Minnie while she was still being exhibited at the fair. USDA inspector Jan Baltrush wrote in her report that Minnie was “not being forced to give rides.” It is absurd to describe Minnie’s exhibition and labor for profit as anything but forced. Minnie lacks any freedom of choice. When made to labor for her owner’s financial gain, she is 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. She obeys her handler’s commands to give rides not because she wants to do so, but out of fear.
We at the Nonhuman Rights Project will continue to seek answers about deaths of Beulah and Karen and fight for Minnie’s release to an elephant sanctuary.