A Florida-based animal rights group has filed a second habeas corpus petition on behalf of three elephants living in a Goshen petting zoo, arguing the animals are autonomous beings and have the right to bodily liberty. The Nonhuman Rights Project is seeking to remove Beulah, Minnie and Karen from the zoo and relocate them to a California-based sanctuary.
Attorney Steven Wise, founder of the animal rights nonprofit, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Monday that Litchfield Superior Court Judge James Bentivegna was wrong when he ruled in late February that the group’s first petition for common-law writ of habeas corpus seeking the release of the elephants was “wholly frivolous.”
The second habeas corpus petition was filed Monday afternoon in Tolland Superior Court. The writ seeks for a judge, who has not been named yet, to serve the Commerford Zoo. If the petition is granted, the next step in the case is for the petting zoo to either appeal or come to court to answer why it is holding the elephants. No one from the zoo responded to a request for comment Monday. Commerford does not have an attorney representing it in the matter. Wise said he’d immediately appeal to the Connecticut Appellate Court if the petition is denied.
“The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching,” Fahey wrote in his ruling. “It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”
Wise said the biggest obstacle he faces, as an attorney, “is that many judges have an implicit bias against us. They have only lived in a legal system where nonhuman animals are seen as things. They erroneously believe that human and person are synonyms. We have to try to educate them.”
The petition filed Monday includes affidavits from elephant experts throughout the world who say elephants are autonomous beings.
“We argue that one of the things Connecticut judges most value is the equality of autonomy,” Wise said. “They believe, and we believe, it’s an important part of their job to protect autonomy.”
Wise said elephants “are autonomous. They are extraordinarily cognitive complex beings who can choose how to live their lives.”
Monday’s petition is very straightforward: It states the elephants are not things and have legal rights.
The petition states, in part: “Classifying Beulah, Minnie and Karen as ‘things’ solely because they are not human, thereby denying them the capacity for any legal right, is so arbitrary and unjust that it violates basic common law equality.”
In addition to Wise, the animal rights group is represented by David Zabel, a principal with Cohen & Wolf in Bridgeport. Zabel did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Wise, who lives in Florida and is a member of the Massachusetts bar, has been granted permission to appear in court pro hac vice, or as an attorney of record, in Connecticut.
Correction: This story has been updated to remove a reference to a New York Court of Appeals ruling.