Elephant Close Up Photo: Bevylegs/Shutterstock.com

A Massachusetts-based animal rights group is looking to fast-track it’s appeals fight to free three elephants from a Connecticut petting zoo.

The animal rights group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, is asking the state’s high court to hear an appeal currently before the Connecticut Appellate Court. In its motion to transfer, the NhRP says it’s hoping the highest court in the state can take the case because “the appeal involves novel issues of first impression that are of widespread legal and social significance that go beyond the circumstances of the present case … This appeal concerns pure questions of law regarding the fundamental and time-honored writ of habeas corpus.”

Steven Wise, founder and president of the animal rights nonprofit, said issues of first impression that warrant going to the state’s high court include whether a third party can file a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a detained person or an animal they don’t know.

And, the motion said, the “trial court interpretation of ‘frivolous’ presents an important issue of first impression with wide-ranging negative implications for the use of habeas corpus for both humans and nonhuman animals.” The appeal seeks to resolve the proper meaning of the word frivolous as used in the Connecticut Practice Book.

The NhRP is seeking the release of Beulah, Karen and Millie from the Goshen-based Commerford Zoo.

“We think the issue of the illegal imprisonment of autonomous animals like elephants is an important one that needs to be resolved now, for the sake of the elephants. The longer they are in the petting zoo, the longer their autonomy is being suppressed,” Wise said.

The NhRP filed the appeal with the Connecticut Appellate Court in September. That 49-page brief addressed only two issues with regard to Litchfield Superior Court Judge James Bentivegna’s ruling: that he said the writ of habeas corpus was “wholly frivolous,” and that the group lacked standing to release the elephants.

In his February 2018 ruling, Bentivegna said NhRP failed to put forth any controlling principles to re-argue its case.

“The petitioner’s amendments do not resolve this court’s conclusion that—under the law as it stands today—the petition lacks the possibility or probability of victory, meaning it is wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms,” Bentivegna wrote. The judge added that the petition was not based on constitutionally protected liberty and that the plaintiffs had not established a significant relationship with the elephants.

Wise said similar cases are pending in Columbia, Argentina and India.

“We believe the state Supreme Court could take this case because it’s an important and novel case and high courts around the world are starting to lean in that direction, to hear cases that non-human animals are persons who have fundamental legal rights,” Wise said.

Wise noted that the fact the high courts in other countries are even taking the cases shows judges are beginning to consider the rights of animals.

Wise added Bentivegna’s ruling went too far with regard to standing.

Wise said the appeal cites several examples of standing going back to the slave trade. One example cited was in 1837 in Jackson v. Bulloch, in which an abolitionist successfully sought a common-law writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a slave named Nancy Jackson, who had been brought temporarily to Connecticut by her Georgia master.

Wise said Bentivegna improperly relied on Whitmore v. Arkansas, a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with death row inmates. Part of the justices’ ruling found that individuals cannot file cases as a next friend without a prior relationship to the appellant.

Wise notes that in November, several experts in habeas corpus, philosophy and legal ethics filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the Connecticut Appellate Court to allow the case to proceed. Those experts included Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and Mark Dubois, former president of the Connecticut Bar Association and the state’s first chief disciplinary counsel.

Commerford has not retained attorneys to represent it. Robert Commerford, owner of the zoo, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

There is no timeline for the Connecticut Supreme Court to decide whether to take the case.

In addition to Wise, the animal rights group is also represented by David Zabel, a principal with Bridgeport’s Cohen and Wolf. Zabel did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

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Massachusetts Animal Rights Group Looks to Appellate Court to Free 3 Elephants From Connecticut Petting Zoo