Minnie, Beulah and Karen are elephants who for decades have belonged to a family-owned, traveling zoo in Connecticut. Over the years, they've also been hired out for appearances in advertisements, movies and weddings.

And on Monday, they got a lawyer, though they did not ask for one. The prominent animal rights attorney Steven Wise filed a writ of habeas corpus petition on behalf of the elephants, arguing that they are "legal persons" with a right to bodily liberty and asking the Connecticut Superior Court to order their release to a sanctuary.

Wise and his legal group, the Nonhuman Rights Project, have unsuccessfully made this argument several times before in New York, where their plaintiffs were chimpanzees. As in those cases, the elephant lawsuit cites a wide body of scientific research establishing the species's advanced cognitive abilities and complex social lives - evidence of what the legal team says is the elephants' "autonomy."

If the court granted a writ, it would be allowing the elephants to challenge the legality of their detention and acknowledging their "personhood." That could usher in profound changes in legal status for animals, which are currently considered property in the eyes of the law. But critics contend that it might also weaken the rights of some people.

Tim Commerford, owner of the Commerford Zoo, which owns the three elephants, said in a phone interview that he had not seen the lawsuit and had not been aware it was coming. The animals range in age from 33 to 50 and have all belonged to the zoo for at least 30 years, he said.

"They're part of our family," he said.

Legal personhood is a term that is not reserved for human beings. U.S. courts have determined that corporations can be legal persons, and a New Zealand court has extended the label to a river. Courts in Argentina and Colombia have also recognized legal personhood for chimpanzees and a bear. But the Nonhuman Rights Project's previous attempts in New York have been stymied by rulings that rejected personhood for chimps based on the animals' inability to bear legal responsibilities and social duties.

In an interview Monday, Wise said the New York courts were "clearly wrong" about this point, which he hopes the Connecticut court will view it differently. He said the project chose Connecticut as its next site for a case even before finding clients - the elephants - because the legal team judged the state's common law to be favorable to their arguments. What's more, he said, elephants might stand a better chance than chimps, in part because "apes are so close to us that it makes some people uncomfortable."

"Judges may view us in a different way when we're dealing with an animal that doesn't look anything like us but has many of the same characteristics," Wise said. Those characteristics, he said, are explained in affidavits from leading elephant experts, which cite the animals' empathy, self-awareness and long-term memory, as well as one Wise said deserved special attention: an ability to use calls and gestures to discuss, plan and execute a course of action.

"They engage not only in innovative problem-solving, but they engage in cooperative problem-solving," Wise said. "They know their past, they know they're in the present, and they can plan a future."

Commerford, the zoo owner, concurred that elephants are unusually intelligent. But he said Beulah, Minnie and Karen have ample space and stimulation. Removing them would be akin to taking away a house cat that is "comfy at your house," he said.

"It's not right to rip them from my family, from their home," he said. Commerford referred to Wise and his team as "animal extremists" who "are picking on us and targeting us because we're a small, family-owned operation and everything we do is on our own nickel."

Wise emphasized that his arguments are about animal rights, not about animal welfare, and the petition does not dwell on the elephants' living conditions.

But Richard L. Cupp, a Pepperdine law school professor who has criticized the quest for legal personhood for animals, said that the appropriate way to deal with concerns about captive animals is through expanded animal welfare laws.

Extending legal personhood to animals might end up loosening the definition, Cupp said. If, for example, people decided it was occasionally necessary to approve invasive experiments on animals despite their legal personhood, then the same might theoretically be asked about experiments on humans, he said. Associating intelligence with personhood would also "not necessarily be good for the most vulnerable human persons," Cupp said.

"It would not surprise me if these animals could be put in a better situation," Cupp said of the elephants. "But we should focus on human responsibility, either by making sure that our laws are enforced, which sometimes they're not, or expanding our laws. Our expansion of animal protection laws has been dramatic over the last 20 or 30 years. I'm arguing that should continue."

Get the daily newsletter in your inbox each morning with today's top stories.

Recommended for you