Animal rights

Lawyers file world’s first habeas corpus petition on behalf of elephants

The US-based Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has filed the world’s first petition for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of elephants.

The NhRP lawyers are demanding that “in accordance with state common law and scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy ” a common law court recognise the elephants as legal persons with the fundamental right to bodily liberty, and immediately release them to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 natural habitat sanctuary,

PAWS has already agreed to provide the elephants with a permanent home.

The petition was filed yesterday (Monday) in the Connecticut Superior Court on behalf of three elephants – Beulah, Minnie, and Karen.

“These elephants were only a few years old when they were taken from the wild and imported to the US decades ago,” said the NhRP president, Steven Wise.

“Instead of forming deep bonds with members of their herd, roaming their natural habitats, and making decisions about how to spend their days and live their lives, they became the property of humans, used in traveling circuses and fairs and other forms of entertainment.”

The elephants are in captivity at the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, Connecticut.

Currently, all nonhuman animals in the US are legally considered to be “things” with no rights.

The NhRP lawyers have already been battling for years to win habeas corpus for four chimpanzees – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo.

In the new petition, world-renowned elephant experts, including the co-founder of  ElephantVoices, Joyce Poole, and the programme director at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Cynthia Moss, have submitted affidavits in support of the NhRP’s lawsuit.

Wise says the habeas corpus petition is not an animal welfare case. “We do not claim the Commerford Zoo is violating any animal welfare statutes. 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. ”

Wise says that the NhRP’s first elephant rights case is grounded in “abundant, robust scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy”.

He cites the elephants’ ability to choose how to live their “emotionally, socially, and cognitively complex lives”.

He points out that, in the habeas corpus petitions, the NhPR is seeking personhood for the animals, not human rights.

The NhRP has launched a #RumbleForRights for elephants campaign and has provided an online activists’ toolkit complete with graphics and other resources such as legal documents.

“A member of an elephant family uses the ‘let’s go’ rumble – the inspiration for our hashtag – to urge other members to move together in a certain direction,” Wise said. “It’s a perfect metaphor for online activism on behalf of elephants.”


Beulah, also known as Beulah Mae, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Myanmar in 1967 and was imported to the US sometime between 1969 and 1973.

In 1973, she was sold to the Commerford Zoo, where she was frequently used in circuses and fairs, was “power-washed” in front of crowds, and obliged to give rides to children and adults.

The Commerford Zoo also used Beulah in commercials and theatrical performances, including a 1981 production of the Connecticut Opera’s Aida, staged at a sports arena.

The elephant has suffered for years from a foot disorder. In her petition on, Jessica M. says she first saw Beulah on a trip to the New Jersey State Fair. The elephant had been working for nearly twenty years.

“Beulah was a part of a petting zoo where she was forced to give kids and teenagers rides. I watched as they kicked her and pulled on her ears. Beulah also looked to be overweight and unhealthy.

“Even after I left the fair, I couldn’t get the elephant out of my mind. I wanted to know more about where she lived and how she was being treated.”


Karen is an African elephant who was born in the wild in 1981 in an unknown location. Imported to the US by Jurgen C. Schulz – who ran an import-export business for exotic animals and now owns the Kifaru Exotic Animal & Bird Auction – Karen was sold to animal trainer Richard “Army” Maguire in 1984.

Later that year, Maguire sold Karen to the Commerford Zoo, which frequently uses her in circuses and fairs.


Minnie at Commerford Zoo. Photo by Jennifer Fermino for Animal Defenders International.

Minnie, also known as Mignon, is an Asian elephant who was born in the wild in Thailand and imported to the US in 1972 when she was two months old.

Shortly afterwards, Earl and Elizabeth Hammond, who were in search of a baby elephant to incorporate into their traveling petting zoo, purchased her for US$4,000.

The couple transported Minnie from Florida to their New Jersey home in a Volkswagen bus.

In their book “Elephants in the Living Room, Bears in the Canoe , the Hammonds write that Minnie became “the first elephant in the world to be raised as a member of a household”.

To pay the elephant’s bills, Mrs Hammond rented her out for parties, sales promotions, and Republican political gatherings. Minnie averaged about two bookings a week.

In 1976, the Hammonds sold Minnie to the Commerford Zoo, which uses her in Indian weddings, film productions, photo shoots, circuses, and fairs.

On at least three occasions, Minnie has attacked and critically injured her handlers, including while children were riding on her.

The animal rights organisation PETA documents one incident in 2006 when Minnie became agitated “and suddenly swung her head toward the two employees, shifting her weight and pinning them against the loading ramp”.

According to PETA, an eyewitness reported that one of the employees had provoked the elephant by striking her in the face.

Despite all this, the Commerford Zoo still forces Minnie to give rides, the NhRP says.

The NhRP says the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has cited the Commerford Zoo more than fifty times for failing to adhere to the minimum standards required by the Animal Welfare Act.

“Violations that pertain to the elephants alone include failure to have an employee or attendant present during periods of public contact with the elephants, failure to give adequate veterinary care to treat an excessive accumulation of necrotic skin on the elephants’ heads, and failure to maintain the elephant transport trailer.”

The USDA has also cited inadequate drainage in the elephant enclosure, a failure to dispose of a large accumulation of soiled hay, bedding, and faeces behind the elephant barn, and a failure to keep an elephant under the control of a handler while she was giving rides.

The Commerford Zoo continues to use bullhooks, which, according to elephant experts, cause physical and psychological harm to elephants.

Over the past decade, local residents have tried to raise awareness about the poor conditions at the Commerford Zoo. They have set up online petitions, written letters to local newspapers, and participated in on-site protests.

In Yelp reviews, the elephants at Commerford Zoo have been described as “sedated,” “sick,” and “sad,” and the facilities have been described as “filthy” and a “stockyard of despair”.

One blogger wrote in March 2011: “They had a long line going to ride on these elephants or on a camel … The enclosed space for the rides was about 20 feet in diameter.

“These elephants and the camel walked clockwise around this space the entire day, with groups of people piling on top of them.  They looked old and tired … sickly.”

Wise says that, in some cases, local advocates have succeeded in persuading a venue to cancel a scheduled appearance by the Commerford Zoo. “However, neither public outcry nor the accumulation of USDA violations has resulted in any fundamental change in the animals’ situation.”

The NhRP maintains that the question of whether elephants are legal persons under the common law is a matter of public policy and moral principle that courts must consider.

Civil law and common law courts, the NhRP points out, have already recognised the personhood of nonhuman entities such as corporations in the US, an orangutan named Sandra in Argentina, and a river in New Zealand.

NhRP’s local counsel in Connecticut, David Zabel, says that our understanding of elephants has  deepened over time, but their legal status as “things” with no rights has remained exactly the same.

“We know,” Zabel said.” that elephants have a sense of self, remember the past and plan for the future, engage in complex communication, show empathy, and mourn their dead.

“What’s at stake here is the freedom of beings who are no less self-aware and autonomous than we humans are.”[tweetquote]

Wise added: “Common law courts must catch up to what we know about members of this extraordinarily complex species and how they suffer – precisely because they are autonomous – when businesses like Commerford force them to perform at circuses and fairs and live in environments completely unsuited to their needs.

“The time has come for them to be transferred to a sanctuary out of respect for their rights. We will not rest until this happens.”

Photo credit: AP Photo/Feld Entertainment Inc., Gary Bogdon


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Tommy and Kiko


In the case of Tommy and Kiko, the NhRP lawyers will be seeking leave to appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The NhRP has released an annotated version of the most recent judgement in the chimpanzees’ case, issued on June 8, 2017, which Wise says is legally wrong. It is available as an interactive multimedia web page via Genius Annotations and as a downloadable PDF.

In an appeal hearing in March this year, the NhRP argued that chimpanzees should be recognised as legal persons who have the right to habeas corpus.

Wise and his team appealed against a lower court’s denial of petitions for writs of habeas corpus for the two chimps.

They made their case before a panel of five judges in the New York County Supreme Court (Appellate Division, First Judicial Department), who denied habeas corpus for the chimps.


Hercules and Leo

In the case of Hercules and Leo, the New York County Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe made a ruling in July 2015 in which she rejected the NhRP’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The NhRP is still working to free the two chimpanzees from the New Iberia Research Center, where they have been held in captivity since Stony Brook University decided to no longer use them in research.


A landmark case in Argentina


There was a landmark judgment in Argentina in November last year in the case of a chimpanzee, Cecilia, who spent years living in seclusion in a cage in Mendoza Zoo.

Judge María Alejandra Mauricio ruled that Cecilia was a nonhuman legal person who possessed the right to be free. The judge ordered Cecilia’s transfer to a sanctuary in Brazil, “where her fundamental legal rights can be respected”.

On April 5 this year, Cecilia arrived at the Sorocaba sanctuary run by the Great Ape Project Brazil (GAP Brazil).

Chucho the bear


There was another landmark judgement in Colombia in July this year when a bear named Chucho was granted a writ of habeas corpus.

Judge Luis Armando Tolosa Villabona, sitting in the Supreme Court, accepted the arguments put forward by Luis Domingo Maldonado, a law professor at Manuela Beltrán University, that Chucho, who is a spectacled bear¹, should have personhood rights and should be released from captivity in the Barranquilla Zoo.

However, judges in the Labour Cassation Chamber of the Colombian Supreme Court later ruled against the writ of habeas corpus.

Part of the rationale presented by the judges in the Labour Cassation Chamber is that “the writ of habeas corpus is inappropriate in the present case, because it was designed for persons, rational animals, not for nonhuman or irrational animals”.

The judges said that the foundations of the decision to grant a writ of habeas corpus to Chucho “are incompatible with the purpose for which the writ was created”.

An appeal is pending.

The NhRP’s petition in the case of Beulah, Minnie, and Karen can be download here and the Memorandum of Law is available here.

You can also consult the affidavits submitted by Lucy Bates, Karen McCombCynthia MossJoyce Poole, and Ed Stewart.


  1. Also known as an Andean bear or Andean short-faced bear. The spectacled bear is South America’s only bear species. It faces an uncertain future because of loss of habitat.