First-Ever Nonhuman Rights Lawsuit Filed On Behalf Of Captive Elephants, Demanding Recognition Of Their Right To Bodily Liberty
The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) argues that its elephant clients, as autonomous beings, are legal “persons” with fundamental rights who must be released from a Connecticut zoo to a sanctuary
-World-renowned elephant experts including Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss have submitted affidavits in support of the NhRP’s suit-
For Immediate Release:
Nov. 13, 2017
Nov. 13, 2017—Hartford, C.T.—The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) announced today that it has filed a petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus in Connecticut Superior Court on behalf of three elephants held captive at the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, CT. The suit demands that the court, in accordance with state common law and scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy, recognize the elephants as legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty. Currently, all nonhuman animals in the US are considered legal “things” with no rights.
The NhRP’s elephant clients—all captured from the wild when they were young and used for decades in traveling circuses, fairs, and other forms of entertainment—are:
• Beulah, an Asian elephant born in 1967
• Karen, an African elephant born in 1981
• Minnie, also known as Mignon, an Asian elephant born in 1972
The NhRP is asking the court to release the elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 natural habitat sanctuary, where their right to bodily liberty will be respected.
“This is not an animal welfare case,” said attorney Steven M. Wise, president and founder of the NhRP. “We do not claim the Commerford Zoo is violating any animal welfare statutes. What they are doing is depriving Beulah, Karen, and Minnie of their freedom, which we see as an inherently cruel violation of their most fundamental right as elephants. If Connecticut common law courts truly value autonomy, as previous rulings suggest they do, they too will see their situation in this light and order the elephants’ release from captivity. ”
As in the NhRP’s landmark chimpanzee rights cases filed in New York beginning in 2013, the NhRP’s first elephant rights case is grounded in abundant, robust scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy, i.e. their ability to choose how to live their emotionally, socially, and cognitively complex lives. Elephant experts who have submitted affidavits in support of the NhRP’s petition include:
- 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)
- 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)
- Ed Stewart (President & Co-Founder, Performing Animal Welfare Society)
In its court filings, the NhRP maintains that the question of whether elephants are legal persons under the common law is a matter of public policy and moral principle that courts must consider. Civil law and common law courts have already recognized the personhood of nonhuman entities such as corporations in the US, a captive chimpanzee in Argentina, and a river in New Zealand.
“Our understanding of elephants has only deepened over time: for example, we know they have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, engage in complex communication, show empathy, and mourn their dead,” said David Zabel, the NhRP’s local counsel in Connecticut and a partner at the law firm of Cohen & Wolf. “But their legal status as ‘things’ with no rights has remained exactly the same. What’s at stake here is the freedom of beings who are no less self-aware and autonomous than we humans are.”
“Common law courts must catch up to what we know about members of this extraordinarily complex species and how they suffer—precisely because they are autonomous—when businesses like Commerford force them to perform at circuses and fairs and live in environments completely unsuited to their needs,” Wise added. “The time has come for them to be transferred to a sanctuary out of respect for their rights. We will not rest until this happens.”
Learn more about Beulah, Karen, and Minnie and where they are held on their court case page.
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About the Nonhuman Rights Project
Founded in 1996 by attorney Steven M. Wise, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) works to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals through litigation, advocacy, and education. Our mission is to change the legal status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them. Our current plaintiffs are members of species who have been scientifically proven to be autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales. We are working with teams of attorneys on four continents to develop campaigns to achieve legal rights for nonhuman animals that are suited to the legal systems of these countries. We filed our first cases in December of 2013.
About NhRP President Steven M. Wise
Steven M. Wise began his mission to gain rights for nonhuman animals in 1985. He holds a J.D. from Boston University Law School and a B.S. in chemistry from the College of William and Mary. He has practiced animal protection law for four decades and is admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. Professor Wise taught the first class in “Animal Rights Law” at the Harvard Law School and has taught “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” at the Stanford Law School, as well as the University of Miami, St. Thomas, and John Marshall Law Schools, and is currently teaching “Animal Rights Jurisprudence” at the Lewis and Clark Law School and Vermont Law School. He is the author of four books: Rattling the Cage – Toward Legal Rights for Animals; Drawing the Line – Science and the Case for Animal Rights; Though the Heavens May Fall – The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery; and An American Trilogy – Death, Slavery, and Dominion Along the Banks of the Cape Fear River. His TED TALK from the TED2015 Conference in Vancouver, Canada was released in May of 2015, and has over one million views.