Clients, Beulah, Karen, Minnie (Elephants)
Torn from their families and forced to perform for humans for decades.
Beulah, also known as Beulah Mae, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Myanmar in 1967 and imported to the US sometime between 1969 and 1973. In 1973, she was sold to the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, CT (see below), which frequently uses her in circuses and fairs where she is power-washed (“complete with a gaggle of onlookers crowded around with lawn chairs, boxed lunches and soda”) and forced to give rides to children and adults, among other activities. The Commerford Zoo has also used her in commercials and theatrical performances, including a 1981 production of the Connecticut Opera’s Aida staged at a sports arena. Beulah has suffered for years from a foot disorder.
“I first saw Beulah the elephant on a trip to the New Jersey State Fair. Beulah was a part of a petting zoo where she was forced to give kids and teenagers rides. I watched as they kicked her and pulled on her ears. Beulah also looked to be overweight and unhealthy. Even after I left the fair, I couldn’t get the elephant out of my mind. I wanted to know more about where she lived and how she was being treated.” – Petition: Retire 46-year-old elephant Beulah after 19 years of exploitation
Karen is an African elephant who was born in the wild in 1981 in an unknown location. Imported to the US by Jurgen C. Schulz—who ran an import-export business for exotic animals and now owns the Kifaru Exotic Animal & Bird Auction—Karen was sold to animal trainer Richard “Army” Maguire in 1984. Later that year, MaGuire sold her to the Commerford Zoo, which also frequently uses her in circuses and fairs.
“Karen was working for her breakfast Thursday morning. She gave a high five and did a little breakdance and bowed … She’s been coming to the state fair for about six years. You can take a ride on Karen for $4.” – Elephant Rides: $4 (The Post-Standard, 8/24/06)
Minnie, also known as Mignon, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Thailand and imported to the US in 1972 when she was two months old. Shortly after, Earl and Elizabeth Hammonds, in search of a baby elephant to incorporate into their traveling petting zoo, purchased her for $4,000 and transported her from Florida to their New Jersey home in a VW bus so she could become “the first elephant in the world to be raised as a member of a household,” as they write in their 1977 book Elephants in the Living Room, Bears in the Canoe. “To pay Mignon’s bills … Mrs. Hammond rents her for parties, sales promotions and Republican political gatherings. Averaging two bookings a week, Mignon just pays her way.” In 1976, the Hammonds sold Minnie to the Commerford Zoo, which frequently uses her in Indian weddings, film productions, photo shoots, circuses, and fairs.
Minnie has a history of attacking her handlers, injuring them and members of the public, including a 2006 incident in which, as PETA documented in a 2010 factsheet, “as children were being loaded onto the elephant, [Minnie] became agitated and suddenly swung her head toward the two employees, shifting her weight and pinning them against the loading ramp. An eyewitness reported that one of the employees had provoked the elephant by striking her in the face.” Despite this history, the Commerford Zoo still forces her to give rides, as indicated on the travel itinerary the Commerford Zoo submitted to the USDA in March 2017.
“Minnie, 35, gussied up in a red, yellow and purple headdress with gold sequins, is accustomed to the attention. She has been in advertisements for AT&T and Kohl’s department store, said Bill Commerford, whose family owns Minnie. The gray diva, who also sported an elegant gold ankle bracelet yesterday, even had a photo shoot with Abercrombie & Fitch models for an ad that appeared in Vanity Fair, Commerford said. ‘I think it was the one with Brad Pitt on the cover,’ he added.” – Groom Turns Heads With an Elephant of an Entrance (Washington Post, 6/14/08)
The Commerford Zoo
Founded in Goshen, CT in 1977 by Robert “Bob” W. Commerford, The Commerford Zoo (also known as R.W. Commerford & Sons and/or the Kids Fun Fair & Zoo) owns elephants, camels, sheep, goats, llamas, donkeys, pygmy horses, ringtail lemurs, macaws, a kangaroo, a zebra, and an African Grey parrot, among other nonhuman animals. Bob Commerford’s sons, William R. Commerford and Timothy P. Commerford, along with their wives Darlene and Margaret, now run the business, which has a reported annual revenue of $630,210.
The USDA has cited the Commerford Zoo over 50 times for failing to adhere to the minimum standards required by the Animal Welfare Act. Violations that pertain to the elephants alone include: failure to have an employee or attendant present during periods of public contact with the elephants; failure to give adequate veterinary care to treat an excessive accumulation of necrotic skin on the elephants’ heads; failure to maintain the elephant transport trailer; inadequate drainage in the elephant enclosure; failure to dispose of a large accumulation of soiled hay, bedding, and feces behind the elephant barn; and failure to keep an elephant under the control of a handler while she was giving rides. On at least three occasions, Minnie has attacked and critically injured her handlers, including while children were riding on her.
In 2007, Bob Commerford testified before a Connecticut state legislative committee to oppose a bill that sought to ban the use of bullhooks, electric prods, and chains to train and control elephants. The Commerford Zoo continues to use bullhooks, which cause physical and psychological harm to elephants, according to elephant experts such as Joyce Poole, Ed Stewart, Cynthia Moss, and Carol Buckley.
“You only use a ’hook on the back of a knee (to get an elephant to move forward). The hook slides into the grooves in the skin. You pull or you push depending (on) which way you want them to go.” – Commerford & Sons responds to animal mistreatment allegations, describes elephants at The Big E as ‘family’ (MassLive, 9/30/15)
For the past decade, numerous area residents have tried to raise awareness of the poor conditions at the Commerford Zoo and sought to prevent it from coming to their communities, sharing their experiences online, proposing ordinances, setting up online petitions, writing letters to the editor, and participating in on-site protests. 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.” In some cases, local advocates have succeeded in persuading a venue to cancel a scheduled appearance by the Commerford Zoo, but neither public outcry nor the accumulation of USDA violations has resulted in any fundamental change in the animals’ situation.
“The elephant wasn’t drinking. It wasn’t doing anything. It was just standing there, staring down an empty hallway. I didn’t stick around to see what happened next. I didn’t want to see what they would do to make the elephant move.” – “Commerford Zoo: STAY AWAY!!!!!!!!” (3/11/11)
While in Goshen, the elephants appear to be kept mostly in a heated barn on the property. Some of the venues at which the elephants have appeared or performed in recent years include the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, NJ; the DCU Center in Worcester, MA; Aleppo Shriners Auditorium in Wilmington, MA; the Mallary East Building in West Springfield, MA; the NJ Convention and Expo Center in Edison, NJ; the Hartford XL Center in Hartford, CT; the BCB Bank Pavilion in Bayonne, NJ; the Fairgrounds Expo Center in Allentown, PA; Penn State University in State College, PA; the Henrietta Dome Center in Henrietta, NY; the Expo Center in York, PA; the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction, VT; and the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, RI.
CURRENT STATUS: Awaiting decisions on Motion for Review and second petition
A timeline of Beulah, Karen, and Minnie’s case:
11/13/17: The NhRP files a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus in Connecticut Superior Court, Litchfield County to demand recognition of Beulah’s, Karen’s and Minnie’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty and their release to PAWS ARK 2000 natural habitat sanctuary. Read and download our petition; our Memorandum of Law; and affidavits submitted by Lucy Bates (Honorary Research Fellow, School of Psychology & Neuroscience, University of St Andrews) and Richard M. Byrne (Research Professor, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, Center for Social Learning & Cognitive Evolution, University of St Andrews) [JOINT], Karen McComb (Professor of Animal Behaviour & Cognition, University of Sussex), Cynthia Moss (Program Director and Trustee, Amboseli Trust for Elephants), Joyce Poole (Co-founder and Co-director, ElephantVoices), and Ed Stewart (President & Co-Founder, Performing Animal Welfare Society).
11/17/2017: The Connecticut Superior Court grants our motion to admit NhRP President Steven M. Wise pro hac vice, which means Steve, though he isn’t licensed in Connecticut, can appear in court as the attorney of record as he has done in all our cases so far.
12/12/17: Without ruling on the habeas petition itself, the court schedules a status conference with Judge James M. Bentivegna in Torrington, CT at 9 a.m. on 2/27/18. Typically, a status conference is used to set the date of a hearing, among other matters.
1/16/18: The NhRP files a motion to reargue with the Connecticut Superior Court, Litchfield County, asking the court to reverse its dismissal. Our Memorandum of Law brings to the court’s attention several significant errors in the decision, including labeling the case “frivolous” simply because it is novel and ignoring long-standing Connecticut precedent in concluding that the NhRP does not meet the requirements for third-party standing in a common law habeas corpus action. Read the media release here.
2/27/18: Judge Bentivegna denies the NhRP’s motion to reargue and refuses to allow us to amend our petition—primarily, he said, because the basis of our petition was not constitutionally protected liberty, i.e. a liberty interest protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As we tell the media in our announcement of our plans to appeal, this may indeed be the kind of liberty that a convicted prisoner needs to invoke habeas corpus in the state of Connecticut. But it never has been the kind of liberty that individuals who are not convicted prisoners, such as our three elephant clients, need to prosecute a common law writ of habeas corpus under the law of Connecticut or anywhere else in the world.
3/16/18: The NhRP files a notice of appeal of both the denial of our petition and the denial of our motion to reargue.
4/18/18: The NhRP files a Motion for Articulation with the Connecticut Appellate Court, seeking clarification of the legal and factual basis for Connecticut Superior Court Judge James M. Bentivegna’s 12/26/17 decision and 2/27/18 decision.
5/23/18: Judge Bentivegna grants just one of the our sixteen requests for articulation. Addressing only “request number ten,” Judge Bentivegna reasserts what he sees as the “frivolousness” of our petition. Read our statement here.
6/5/18: The NhRP files a Motion for Review of Judge Bentivegna’s decision on the Motion for Articulation.
6/11/18: Seeking to avoid undue delay in securing the liberty of its clients, the NhRP files a second habeas corpus petition and Memorandum of Law in Tolland County because of that Court’s extensive experience and expertise with habeas corpus petitions. “Under Connecticut law, we have the right to file a second petition for habeas corpus,” says NhRP President and lead attorney Steven M. Wise in the NhRP’s press release. “A denial of standing is not considered a judgement on the merits. Beulah, Karen, and Minnie deserve to have their case fully and fairly litigated in the Connecticut courts—not just for their sake, but because these novel legal issues demand it.” Submitted with the second petition is an affidavit by 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 and has taught law and lawyers’ ethics at Yale Law School, the University of Connecticut School of Law, and Quinnipiac University School of Law. In his affidavit, Dubois states that the NhRP’s case “is not frivolous, in whole or in part” and urges the Court to allow the NhRP’s case to proceed.
“- NhRP brief
[Elephants’] interest in exercising their autonomy is as fundamental to them as it is to us.”