Wildlife and animal rights

Court in the US dismisses world’s first habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of elephants

A judge in the United States has dismissed the world’s first petition for a common law writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of elephants, but the lawyers remain undeterred and say they will push forward.

The petition was filed in November this year by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of three elephants – Beulah, Minnie, and Karen, who are in captivity at the Commerford Zoo in Goshen, Connecticut.

Judge James Bentivegna gave two grounds for his dismissal of the petition. Firstly, he said the NhRP “lacked standing”. Secondly, he said he found the lawsuit to be “wholly frivolous”.

The NhRP president, Steven Wise, said: “We think these are insufficient reasons to justify a court’s failure to reach the merits of our claim that, as elephants are autonomous beings, they have the right to bodily liberty protected by habeas corpus.”

He said that, as far back as the days of human slavery, the Connecticut courts had allowed any petitioner to seek a common law writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a detained individual.

In this case, Wise said, the Superior Court added the further requirement that the petitioner filing the lawsuit should have a “significant relationship” with the detainee, unless the detainee has no significant relationships at all, and that the NhRP “failed to allege that the elephants have no significant relationships at all”.

He added: “The NhRP had thought it plain that the three elephants have no significant relationships with any petitioner able to file a habeas corpus lawsuit on their behalf against their captors.”

Wise says the NhRP is also concerned that, in its decision, the Superior Court inappropriately analogised the elephants’ captors at the Commerford Zoo to the animals’ parents.

“In each of its prior common law habeas corpus cases in which a court addressed standing, the NhRP has always been found to have standing,” Wise said. “We are optimistic that we will eventually be found to have standing in this case as well.”

In his rebuttal of the court’s second ground for dismissal of the NhRP’s petition, Wise said he believed the court failed to consider the manner in which the common law has traditionally changed over the past eight hundred years. He said the judge was wrong to dismiss the petition because no one had ever brought such a case before in Connecticut.

“Each of the thousands of common law rules that exist today once did not exist. Each common law rule that exists today was once the subject of the first such case to be brought,” Wise said.

“In short, there is an important difference between a frivolous case and a novel one.”

Wise said the NhRP was studying the decision and would likely either seek to amend its habeas corpus petition to add a sentence stating that Minnie, Karen, and Beulah have no significant relationships with anyone able to file a habeas corpus action against their captors or would refile its lawsuit so that its petition includes that sentence.

“Should we be unsuccessful we will, of course, appeal,” Wise said.

The NhRP lawyers argued that “in accordance with state common law and scientific evidence of elephants’ autonomy” the court should 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.

“These elephants were only a few years old when they were taken from the wild and imported to the US decades ago,” Wise said at the time of the hearing.

“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.”

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 petition filed in Connecticut, world-renowned elephant experts, including the co-founder of  ElephantVoices, Joyce Poole, and the programme director at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Cynthia Moss, 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.”

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


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.

The elephant has suffered for years from a foot disorder.


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, 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.

To pay the elephant’s bills, Mrs Hammond rented her out for parties, sales promotions, and Republican political gatherings.

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


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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”.

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.

An appeal is pending.


  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.