The Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit Monday on behalf of three female Connecticut petting zoo elephants, claiming they’re autonomous animals that should be released to a sanctuary.
Attorney Steven Wise, founder of the nonprofit project, said Monday the elephants are legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty. The elephants are currently at the Commerford Zoo, a traveling petting zoo based in Goshen.
“The question is not whether the elephants have standing, but whether we have standing to file this on behalf of the elephants,” Wise said. “The zoo is detaining these elephants against their will.”
Wise said he is arguing that any autonomous being—like an elephant—should have standing. “We are arguing that any autonomy is a sufficient condition for personhood and the right to liberty by writ of habeas corpus.”
Wise continued: “The litigant has to be both a person and have standing. Only a person now can have standing because animals are viewed as things. We are raising the legal question of whether the elephants are persons. We believe that we have standing to raise that question.”
Wise noted that the complaint cites numerous experts who speak about the skills of elephants.
“Certain animals are autonomous, elephants among them,” Wise said. “Elephants know how to plan courses of actions, elephants have empathy toward others, and elephants help other elephants when they are injured.”
According to the complaint the three elephants in question are “persons within the meaning of Connecticut common law of habeas corpus. Person is not a synonym for human being, but designates an entity with the capacity for legal rights.”
Wise also claimed that Commerford uses the elephants in circuses, where they are forced to perform “stupid elephant tricks.”
Tom Commerford, owner of the 50-year-old family-owned Commerford Zoo, said the facility treats its animals with dignity and dismissed the lawsuit as “frivolous.”
“They are like our personal pets. They are part of the family,” Commerford said Monday. “We take care of the elephants. We feed them, bathe them and trim their nails. We are federally regulated and are on public display. You’d think there would be complaints about mistreatment since they are on public display, but there are not.”
While he has his critics, including some animal rights activists who used to regularly protest outside the zoo on weekends, Commerford said those activists and protestors do not understand how animals are treated in zoos. In addition, he said, having elephants take part in circuses are only a small part of what the animals do.
“The elephants do not regularly take part in circuses,” Commerford said. “We are talking three weeks a year, tops. We are more of a petting zoo in that we offer education about elephants and elephant rides.”
The three elephants in question are Beulah, Minnie and Karen. Two are Asian elephants and one is an African elephant. Commerford said the elephants are about 33, 48 and 50 years old. Elephants can typically live to 60 years old.
Wise, a long time animal rights activist, said his organization has filed four separate lawsuits on behalf of captive chimpanzees in New York courts in recent years. Those cases are pending. Wise said the lawsuits are similar in nature as his organization is claiming both the elephants and chimpanzees are autonomous animals.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus scored a court victory against animal rights groups and others in 2014 with a $16 million settlement related to allegations the circus mistreated its elephants. The settlement ended 14 years of litigation and covered the legal costs incurred by Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company. The zoo will still phase out its elephant acts by 2018.
Recently, news of a monkey selfie made headlines.
There was also recent settlement over whether a monkey can own the copyrights to a photo it took. Under the deal, the photographer, whose camera was used to snatch a selfie, agreed to donate 25 percent of any future revenues from the images to charities dedicated to protecting the crested macaques in Indonesia.
In that case, U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California ruled that, under Ninth Circuit case law, animals do not have legal standing to bring lawsuits unless expressly provided by the statute. The Copyright Act makes no mention of animals, he wrote, and the Copyright Office has formally stated that “to qualify as a work of authorship, a work must be created by a human being.”
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued on behalf of the monkey in 2015, seeking financial control of the photographs for the benefit of the monkey named Naruto.