Connecticut judge denies petition to grant elephants legal 'personhood'

Image: Minnie the elephant at the Connecticut Commerford Zoo.
Minnie the elephant at the Connecticut Commerford Zoo.Animal Defenders International

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By Daniella Silva and The Associated Press

A Connecticut judge has denied a petition by an animal rights group to grant legal "personhood" to three elephants being kept at a zoo.

The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) sued on behalf of elephants Minnie, Beulah, and Karen at the Commerford Zoo in November. The lawsuit that marked the first time a lawsuit “demanded that an elephant's legal right not to be imprisoned and treated as a thing be recognized, Steven Wise, founder of the group, told NBC News at the time.

Superior Court Judge James Bentivegna said in the decision released Tuesday that the animal rights group did not have standing to bring the habeas corpus petition forward because they did not have a prior relationship with the elephants, according to the Associated Press.

Minnie the elephant at the Connecticut Commerford Zoo.Animal Defenders International

Wise said in a statement Thursday the judge required that “the petitioner filing the lawsuit have a 'significant relationship' with the detainee, unless a detainee has no significant relationships at all, and that the NhRP failed to allege the elephants have no significant relationships at all.”

“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,” he said.

Wise said that they would likely either amend their habeas corpus petition to address the grounds behind the judge’s or re-file the lawsuit to address those issues.

Related: Elephants deserve legal ‘personhood,’ new lawsuit argues in Connecticut

“Should we be unsuccessful we will, of course, appeal," Wise added.

The judge called the petition "wholly frivolous on its face in legal terms” in the decision, according to the AP.

Wise said he felt the court did not consider the evolution of common law.

Minnie the elephant at the Connecticut Commerford Zoo.Animal Defenders International

“We believe the court failed to consider the manner in which the common law has traditionally changed over the last 800 years,” he said. “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.”

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

Wise argued that animals such as elephants, which have complex cognitive abilities, should not be counted as “things” under the law, but that the court should grant them the capacity for “personhood.”

Wise added that seeking “personhood” for the elephants was not the same as seeking full human rights for them.

“The only thing we’re seeking is the single right of bodily liberty that is protected by habeas corpus,” he said at the time the suit was filed.