The Elephants and Exotic Animals of the Connecticut Roadside Zoo
Wildlife Committe Update
Minnie, a 47-year-old, wild-born Asian elephant owned by R.W. Commerford & Sons in Goshen, Connecticut, has been living without others of her own species since the death of two companion elephants (Karen and Beulah) in 2019. Elephants are complex social creatures and in their natural habitats live in close-knit family groups. A 2006 New York Times article described the trauma elephants undergo in captivity: “Being kept in relative confinement and isolation [is] a kind of living death for an animal as socially developed and dependent as we now know elephants to be,” author Charles Siebert wrote. Additionally, as reported in a recent feature in National Geographic, Karen and Beulah suffered for years before dying in 2019 after prolonged illnesses.
The article references newly obtained records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which show that Karen and Beulah were forced to continue to travel and give rides even despite being sick. The Florida-based Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), an animal rights organization, obtained the USDA records this past June. NhRP advocated in court for Commerford to release Minnie to a sanctuary, where she would have safety, care, and the companionship of other elephants; however those efforts have been unsuccessful. According to NhRP, the Commerford Zoo has been cited more than fifty times for Animal Welfare Act violations.
Many other animals are also captive in the “roadside” zoos around the country, which includes about seventy elephants. As noted in the National Geographic: “Though the Animal Welfare Act requires adequate veterinary care, the guidelines are vaguely worded, and USDA inspectors often defer to the facility owners and veterinarians…” The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires higher animal welfare and care standards at 241 U.S. institutions, but none of the “roadside” zoos have their accreditation. Recently introduced into Congress, the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act would address some issues by including tightening requirements for license renewal.
To address the exploitation of wild animals used in “entertainment”, in both this past Connecticut 2020 legislative session and in 2019, the Sierra Club Connecticut Wildlife Committee advocated for bills and submitted testimony that would have prohibited the use of exotic or wild animals in traveling animal acts. It is our hope that in 2022 such legislation is proposed, and with your help, finally becomes law.
Ensuring that Minnie can live out the rest of her life in good care, peace, and safety at an animal sanctuary will take concerted efforts, and the Wildlife Committee is in the process of working with other like-minded organizations to achieve this goal. There are at least two qualified animal sanctuaries that are prepared to take Minnie, and her release is now more urgent than ever.
Kathleen Magner is Sierra Club Connecticut’s Wildlife Committee Chair.