Elephant Habeas Case: Connecticut Appellate Court Holds Elephants Are Not Persons

Mother and baby elephant
Credit: Casey Allen (CC0)

It will surprise no one except Steven Wise that in today’s case, Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. R.W. Commerford & Sons, Inc. (Conn. App. Ct. 2019), the court affirmed dismissal of a habeas corpus petition brought on behalf of three elephants in a zoo on jurisdictional grounds, as the elephants are not persons with standing to petition for writs of habeas corpus. I’ve written about the case twice before, at its inception and following the lower court’s decision denying the petition as frivolous.

The best part of the decision, in my view, is in the footnotes. Here is the court’s explanation of why the fact that the law recognizes legal persons such as corporations does not mean that the law must also recognize nonhuman animals as persons:

General Statutes § 1-1(a) provides: “In the construction of the statutes,words and phrases shall be construed according to the commonly approved usage of the language; and technical words and phrases, and such as have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood accordingly.” Black’s Law Dictionary (11th Ed. 2019) defines “person” as “[a] human being,” “[t]he living body of a human being,” or as “[a]n entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having most of the rights and duties of a human being.” Id., pp. 1378–79. General Statutes § 1-1(k) instructs: “The words ‘person’ and ‘another’ may extend and be applied to communities, companies, corporations, public or private, limited liability companies, societies and associations.” We note that entities to which personhood has been ascribed by law are formed and governed for the benefit of human beings. See People ex rel.Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery, supra, 124 App. Div. 3d 152 (noting that “[a]ssociations of human beings, such as corporations and municipal entities, may be considered legal persons, because they too bear legal duties in exchange for their legal rights”).

And here is the court’s explanation of why the law can recognize the obvious truth that nonhuman animals are not persons while still recognizing the sentience and moral worth of animals and providing for their protection:

Our conclusion that the petitioner in this case lacks standing, however, does not restrict it, or others, from advocating for added protections for elephants or other nonhuman animals at the legislature. We acknowledge that elephants are magnificent animals who naturally develop social structures and exhibit emotional and intellectual capacities. They are deserving of humane treatment whether they exist in the wild or captivity. Our law recognizes—as any pet owner knows—that animals are sentient beings and an entirely different kind of property than a chair or a table. We note that our legislature has enacted comprehensive laws prohibiting abusive behaviors toward animals, which carry penalties that are based on the severity of the abuse and the abuser’s intent. See, e.g., General Statutes § 53-247. With respect to elephants, the legislature has passed legislation that gives the Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection regulatory power to adopt regulations to regulate trade in Connecticut if such trade of elephant ivory or products manufactured or derived from elephant ivory contributes to the extinction or endangerment of elephants. See General Statutes § 26-315.

I suspect nothing is going to stop Mr. Wise from pursuing his quixotic quest to find some American judge, somewhere, who will agree with him, at least until the NhRP’s money runs out. And in our crazy world, who is to say he won’t? The NhRP raises money via its website, so the prospects of running out of money may not be that great. Speaking of the website, let me raise the following issue of professional responsibility. The website publicizes the cases of the NhRP’s “clients,” including the Connecticut elephants. do the elephants want their cases publicized? Do they want their cases splashed in the news or used to raise money for their lawyers? Ordinarily, of course, a lawyer shouldn’t be discussing his clients or their cases in public without their permission, right? “You fool,” the NhRP might say to me, “these elephants obviously aren’t like adult human beings with whom you can have that kind of conversation.” Well, there is a rule about clients with diminished capacity such as children, the incapacitated, etc., and it makes it clear that the ordinary rule of confidentiality applies except as the lawyer implicitly authorized to make disclosures in order, for example, to obtain appointment of a guardian ad litem or to take other protective actions. I don’t think press releases are within the scope of that exception, do you?

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