Court Denies Habeas Petition Filed on Behalf of Elephants

By John M. Simpson

A Connecticut Superior Court Judge recently issued an opinion further elaborating on his prior decision to deny a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed on behalf of three elephants (two Asian and one African) owned by a zoo in Connecticut.  Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. ex rel. Beulah, Minnie and Karen v. R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc., No. LLICV175009822S, 2018 WL 3014069 (Conn. Super Ct. May 23, 2018).  The action had been brought on behalf of the elephants “Beulah,” “Minnie” and “Karen” by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP), arguing that the animals possessed emotional, social and intellectual attributes sufficient for common law personhood and for the common law right to the bodily liberty protected by the writ.  The May 23 decision expanded upon the reasons why the court previously had found the habeas petition to be “wholly frivolous on its face.”The court reviewed the standards for issuing the writ, noting that under either the general standard or the standard applicable to family matters, the petition foundered.  2018 WL 3014069, at *2.  As the court explained:

Under either standard, the court found the nonbinding legal and nonlegal authority cited by the petitioner to be unpersuasive.  Accordingly, the court expressly concluded that the petitioner was unable to point to any authority demonstrating a possibility or a probability of victory for the theory that an elephant is a legal person for the purpose of issuing a writ of habeas corpus.  In other words, the court determined that the petitioner failed to show that the issues presented are debatable among jurists of reason, that a court could resolve the issues in a different manner, or that the questions presented are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further and failed to show that the petition merits a legal victory.

Id. (footnotes omitted).

The court’s original decision denying the petition ruled that the NHRP did not have standing as the elephants’ “next friend” to bring the case and that the petition was “wholly frivolous on its face:”

Does the petitioner’s theory that an elephant is a legal person entitled to those same liberties extended to you and I have a possibility or probability of victory?  The petitioner is unable to point to any authority which has held so, but instead relies on basic human rights of freedom and equality, and points to expert averments of similarities between elephants and human beings as evidence that this court must forge new law.  Based on the law as it stands today, this court cannot so find.

No. LLICV175009822S, 2017 WL 7053738, at *5 (Conn. Super Ct. Dec. 26, 2017) (original emphasis).   The court subsequently denied reconsideration of this decision.  No. LLICV175009822S, 2018 WL 1787370 (Conn. Super Ct. Feb. 27, 2018).

The NHRP has appealed all three of these decisions.

The elephant habeas corpus case is similar to other recent, but unsuccessful, efforts to have various animals declared eligible for the rights or legal protections available to human beings.  See, e.g., Naruto v. Slater, 888 F.3d 418 (9th Cir. 2018) (organization had no standing to sue on behalf of crested macaque monkey; animal had no standing in its own right to sue under the Copyright Act); In re Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, 54 N. Y. S. 3d 392 (N.Y. App. Div. 2017) (chimpanzee was not a “person” for purposes of habeas corpus relief), motion for leave to appeal denied, 31 N.Y.3d 1054 (2018).