Elephants Elephants. Photo: Jim Stroup/Science.gov

A Massachusetts-based animal rights group has filed a brief with the Connecticut Appellate Court seeking to overturn a ruling by a Superior Court judge, who found the group’s petition for a common-law writ of habeas corpus to remove three elephants from a Goshen petting zoo was “wholly frivolous.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project’s 49-page brief, filed Monday afternoon, addressed only two issues in Litchfield Superior Court Judge James Bentivegna’s ruling: that the writ of habeas corpus was wholly frivolous and that the group lacked standing to seek the release of elephants Beulah, Minnie and Karen to a sanctuary.


Related: Animal Rights Group Revives Claim Seeking CT Elephants’ Release


The elephants currently live at the Commerford Zoo,

Attorney Steven Wise, founder and president of the animal rights nonprofit, told the Connecticut Law Tribune Wednesday he’s confident that either the Connecticut Appellate Court or the state Supreme Court will rule in his favor. He said he plans on filing a motion in the next few weeks seeking to transfer the case from the Appellate Court to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court would then decide whether it wants to hear the matter.

“We are very optimistic of victory,” Wise said. “We raised very serious questions [in the brief]. There are very prominent legal scholars who agree with us that elephants are autonomous, and we cite more than 100 law review articles and some books in which legal scholars view what we are doing as being correct. Most agree with us and some do not. But the fact that there is a debate going on is evidence of why this is not frivolous.”

Wise said he believes Bentivegna called the petition frivolous “because it was novel in Connecticut.”

“No one had ever sought a writ of habeas corpus in Connecticut for nonhuman animals before,” Wise said. “But if it’s novel, it cannot be frivolous, and the Connecticut Appellate Court has already said that at least four times.”

The brief underscores several rulings by judges, which seemed to infer that an animal could be released from confinement through the writ of habeas corpus. It cites a recent ruling by Judge Eugene Fahey, associate justice of the New York Court of Appeals, who wrote on an issue involving a chimpanzee.

“The issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us,” Fahey wrote. “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.”

The brief also included a ruling that was handed down in New York less than a month after the Fahey ruling. A New York Appellate Division wrote: “It is common knowledge that personhood can and sometimes does attach nonhuman entities like corporations or animals.”

With regard to standing, the brief cites several examples going back to the slave trade in different countries.

The brief cites the case of Jackson v. Bulloch in which a famed black abolitionist successfully sought a common-law writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a slave named Nancy Jackson, to whom he was a stranger who had been brought temporarily into Connecticut by her Georgia master.

“We argue that a third party can bring suit for someone who is imprisoned. It’s obvious that someone who is in prison, as these elephants are, cannot bring a writ of habeas corpus and someone else has to do it,” Wise said.

Commerford does not have an attorney representing it in the matter. No one from the petting zoo responded to a request for comment Wednesday.

In addition to Wise, the animal rights group is also represented by David Zabel, a principal with Cohen & Wolf in Bridgeport. 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.

Beulah, also known as Beulah Mae, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Myanmar in 1967 and imported to the United States sometime between 1969 and 1973. In 1973, she was sold to the Commerford Zoo. Minnie, also known as Mignon, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Thailand and imported to the United States in 1972 when she was 2 months old. Karen is an African elephant who was born in the wild in 1981 in an unknown location. She was imported to the United States and sold to the Commerford Zoo.

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