Should elephants be viewed as legal persons in the eyes of the court? A new lawsuit filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) argues yes. The group says three elephants, owned by a traveling Connecticut zoo, should have “the fundamental right to bodily liberty” and be placed in an animal sanctuary instead.


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Beulah, Karen, and Minnie are three elephants owned by the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, Connecticut. The animals give rides and appear in circuses, fairs, weddings, and movies. They’re between 33 and 50 years old, and the zoo has owned them for at least 30 years. But according to the NhRP, the United States Department of Agriculture has cited the zoo more than 50 times for not adhering to the minimum standards of the Animal Welfare Act. People have described the elephants as sick or sad, with one Yelp review describing facilities as a “stockyard of despair.”

Related: New Zealand river world’s first to obtain legal status as a person

NhRP filed the lawsuit with the Connecticut Superior Court, requesting the elephants be released to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 sanctuary, where NhRP says “their right to bodily liberty will be respected.”

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NhRP founder and attorney Steven Wise said the case isn’t about animal welfare, but animal rights, saying in a statement, “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.”

Commerford Zoo owner Tim Commerford told The Washington Post, “It’s not right to rip them from my family, from their home.”

According to The Washington Post, legal personhood has been applied to corporations in the United States, a New Zealand river, and chimpanzees and a bear in Argentina and Colombia. But Pepperdine law school professor Richard Cupp told The Washington Post it’s better to help captive animals with expanded animal welfare laws. Giving legal personhood to animals could loosen the definition, he argued, which could harm vulnerable humans. He said, “It would not surprise me if these animals could be put in a better situation. But we should focus on human responsibility…Our expansion of animal protection laws has been dramatic over the last 20 or 30 years. I’m arguing that should continue.”

Via the Nonhuman Rights Project (1,2) and The Washington Post

Images via Joel Mbugua on Unsplash and Anne Zwagers on Unsplash