Clients, Beulah, Karen, Minnie (Elephants)
Torn from their families and forced to perform for humans for decades.
Beulah, also known as Beulah Mae, was 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 used her in circuses and fairs where she was 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 suffered for years from a foot disorder. On September 15, 2019, Beulah collapsed and died at the Big E fair in West Springfield, MA.
“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 was 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 used her in circuses and fairs. Karen died in March of 2019 with no announcement by the Commerford Zoo. We are working to determine exactly when and how.
“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: Waiting for Appellate Court to rule on supplemental brief
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 (Petition II) 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.
9/25/18: Citing errors by the Connecticut Superior Court and New York judges’ recent embrace of nonhuman animal legal personhood and rights, the NhRP files a brief in The Appellate Court of Connecticut, seeking review of the lower court’s dismissal of our first petition (Petition I).
11/13/18: Four amicus curiae briefs are filed in The Appellate Court of Connecticut in support of the NhRP’s petition and the elephants’ right to a habeas corpus hearing to determine the lawfulness of their detainment. The authors of the briefs are:
- Laurence H. Tribe (Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard University and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School): “Cases like these recognize that the danger habeas corpus confronts—forceful but unjustified restraint and detention arguably in violation of applicable law—can exist even where the habeas petitioner does not resemble present-day rights holders. The question of Beulah, Minnie, and Karen’s legal personality is thus invariably entwined with the broader debate about the ‘rights’ of nonhuman animals and, about the ‘wrongs’ to which they should not be subjected by a decent society.” Read Tribe’s brief here.
- Justin Marceau (Animal Legal Defense Fund Professor of Law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law), Samuel Wiseman (McConnaughhay and Rissman Professor at Florida State University College of Law), and Brandon L. Garrett (the inaugural L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law): “One of the greatest blemishes on our justice system is the detention of innocent persons. The Writ of Habeas Corpus is intended to correct these injustices by requiring a person’s captors to justify the person’s imprisonment to the courts. While the Writ has helped exonerate hundreds of innocent human beings from unjust incarceration, this amicus brief argues that the time has come to consider its purpose in the context of other unjustly incarcerated beings.” Read the professors’ brief here.
- Mark Dubois (former President of the Connecticut Bar Association, Connecticut’s first Chief Disciplinary Counsel, and expert in the field of legal ethics and professional responsibility): “The subjects of the Petition are sentient and autonomous beings with complex social systems who, in many ways, live their lives in a way that includes elements of what are understood and believed to be civil and social relationships, i.e., they are civilized beings. As such, they are ‘persons’ within the ambit of habeas corpus jurisprudence. In my professional opinion, the signatory lawyers to the Petition are acting upon an objectively reasonable belief that adequate factual grounds exist for the petition and the relief sought. The Petition is neither void of significance or reason nor petty, trivial, or unimportant. It has a sound basis in fact.” Read Dubois’ brief here.
- Philosophers Kristin Andrews (York University); Gary Comstock(North Carolina State University); G.K.D. Crozier (Laurentian University); Andrew Fenton (Dalhousie University); L. Syd M Johnson (Michigan Technological University); Robert Jones(California State University, Chico); Letitia Meynell (Dalhousie University); Nathan Nobis (Morehouse College); David Peña Guzmán (California State University, San Francisco); James Rocha(California State University, Fresno); Bernard Rollin (Colorado State); and Adam Shriver (University of British Columbia): “Of the four conceptions of personhood employed by philosophers and other courts considering habeas relief for nonhuman animals, Species Membership is arbitrary and must be rejected, while the other three—Social Contract, Community Membership, and Capacities—suggest that Beulah, Karen, and Minnie are persons. This Court should recognize that when criteria for personhood are reasonably and consistently applied, Beulah, Karen, and Minnie satisfy the criteria and are entitled to habeas relief.” Read the philosophers’ brief here.
01/24/19: Following a status conference in Torrington, Connecticut on January 24th, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Dan Shaban orders oral argument on a Motion to Rule filed by the NhRP regarding our second habeas corpus petition. The NhRP is urging the Court, in accordance with Connecticut habeas corpus procedure, to promptly rule on whether it will issue the NhRP’s requested Writ of Habeas Corpus “so that Beulah, Karen, and Minnie’s ongoing illegal detention may be addressed at last.” Additionally, the NhRP is asking the Court not to stay the case while the NhRP waits for decisions from either the Appellate Court or the Supreme Court on our appeal of Judge James Bentivegna’s 12/27/18 decision on the issue of standing regarding our first habeas corpus petition (a “stay” order temporarily stops a judicial proceeding).
2/13/19: Judge Shaban dismisses our second petition on the grounds that our second and first petitions “are exactly alike and are brought to adjudicate the same issues.” As we carefully took pains to explain in our written submissions and oral argument, the two cases are not alike and, even if they were, the NhRP was permitted to bring a second petition as the first petition was not dismissed on its merits and therefore could be brought again.
3/27/19: The Appellate Court of Connecticut schedules a hearing on April 22nd—Earth Day—regarding the lower court’s dismissal of our first petition. Learn more here.
4/22/19: In a packed courtroom before a panel of three judges, the NhRP argues that the lower court based its dismissal of the NhRP’s first petition on serious and reversible errors of law. NhRP President Steven M. Wise tells the Court that the NhRP’s elephant rights case is the first time in 350 years a Connecticut court has dismissed a habeas corpus petition because the petitioner was assumed to lack a relationship with the individual whom the petitioner sought to free from unlawful imprisonment. To accommodate the judges’ questions, the Court extends the duration of the oral argument to over twice the time originally allotted, from 20 to 40 to 50 minutes, going beyond the issues on appeal—standing and frivolity—to the ultimate issues at stake in the case: whether the elephants, as autonomous beings, are legal persons entitled to habeas corpus relief. Read the media release here. Watch the hearing here or below:
8/16/19: The Appellate Court of Connecticut issues a decision on the dismissal of the NhRP’s first petition. “It is for Beulah, Karen, and Minnie’s sake that we lament this Court’s failure to confront the injustice of our elephant clients’ thinghood and lack of rights,” says NhRP President Steven M. Wise in a statement.” It is their rightlessness that keeps them imprisoned and exploited in the Commerford Zoo.” The NhRP announces it will seek further review of the decision in Connecticut’s highest court, the Connecticut Supreme Court.
9/1/19: The NhRP files a motion for en banc reconsideration, which asks all nine judges of the Connecticut Appellate Court to review the appellate decision. Citing to cases of enslaved human beings freed from unlawful imprisonment via common law writs of habeas corpus, including the seminal decision of Jackson v. Bulloch, the NhRP argues en banc review is necessary because the decision directly conflicts with controlling Connecticut Supreme Court and Appellate Court precedent. As detailed in the motion, the NhRP’s standing does not depend on the elephants having standing, and in having asserted that the elephants are not legal persons, the panel wrongly determined the merits of the case without the NhRP having had the opportunity to adequately address them. Moreover, the elephants are already considered legal persons under Connecticut’s pet trust statute; their status as beneficiaries of a trust, set up by the NhRP to help facilitate their release to a sanctuary, “does not turn on their capacity to bear duties and responsibilities; neither should their right to bodily liberty so turn.” The three-judge panel had erroneously found the NhRP lacked standing to sue on behalf of the elephants because they are not legal persons.
9/12/19: The Court denies our motion for en banc reconsideration.
9/18/19: The NhRP learns Beulah collapsed and died on 9/15/19 at the Big E fair in West Springfield, MA. In our statement, we announce we have sent a letter to the Commerford Zoo demanding that they confirm within 48 hours whether she is alive or dead.
9/26/19: The NhRP files papers in the Connecticut Supreme Court asking it to hear the NhRP’s appeal of the Appellate Court decision and to grant a temporary injunction preventing the Commerford Zoo from moving Minnie out of state. As the NhRP writes, “Minnie’s removal from Connecticut would strip this Court of its jurisdiction to grant Plaintiff’s Petition for Certification and consider the merits of Plaintiff’s appeal. In turn Minnie would be irreparably harmed by losing her only opportunity to be freed of her long and lonely imprisonment and sent to either The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society near Sacramento, California, where she would be able to live out her years in a place that respects her autonomy, her complex cognitive abilities, and her complex social and psychological needs.” Read the media release here.
10/15/19: The NhRP files 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 also file a motion for a temporary injunction to prevent the Commerford Zoo from moving her out of state while her appeal is pending. Learn more here.
10/17/19: The Appellate Court grants the NhRP permission to file a supplemental brief.
1/8/20: During oral argument before the Appellate Court, the NhRP reiterates that the Court’s prior decision is riddled with serious legal errors and totally unlike any decision in habeas corpus history and that the Connecticut courts have ruled against the NhRP on the merits of Minnie’s case without actually giving the NhRP the opportunity to argue the merits. Learn more here, and watch the proceedings here:
1/30/20: The NhRP files a letter notifying the Appellate Court of a decision issued by the Connecticut Supreme Court—the state’s highest court—that has a direct and significant bearing on her current appeal. Learn more here.
“- NhRP brief
[Elephants’] interest in exercising their autonomy is as fundamental to them as it is to us.”