Elephant Sanctuary offers second chance for 57-year-old Delhi

Monday, Dec 1, 2003HOHENWALD - The Elephant Sanctuary is making sure its newest resident is rested and comfortable.

Delhi, a 57-year-old Asian elephant, was brought to the pachyderm refuge to take care of the animal after it was seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of a serious condition that could've lead to her death, said Elephant Sanctuary Executive Director Carol Buckley.

If elephants do not get sufficient exercise, they can develop a condition called foot rot, in which their feet become bruised and can become infected, Buckley said.

" The surfaces (the elephants) are standing and walking on are unnaturally hard for their feet and how they were designed," she said.

An elephant's feet are similar to a human foot, Buckley said. " It's a soft fleshy material and naturally in the wild, when they walk they wear it down," she said. "They wear the pad down, and they wear the nail down."

Trainers or keepers must trim the pads on the elephants' feet to keep them free of bacterial infection, Buckley said.

The concern with foot rot isn't the bruises themselves, Buckley said.

"Once the infection takes hold, it grows and eats through the flesh. If the bacteria infects the bone, then you have a situation with a crippled elephant and she will have to be euthanized," she said.
Veterinarians will take X-rays of Delhi's feet on Monday to determine the extent of the damage, Buckley said. Surgery can be performed even if there is some infection in the elephant's toes. If the infection is any more aggressive, it could be fatal.

"There is no treatment that has ever been effective to kill a bacterial infection in the bone for elephants," she said.

Delhi's owner John Cuneo operates the Hawthorne Corporation, a company out of Illinois that trains and rents elephants to circuses. Eighteen months ago, Cuneo was told by the USDA that the elephant had to be treated and was no longer allowed to travel until her condition was corrected, Buckley said. The elephant's feet were to be soaked in a diluted formaldehyde solution as per a veterinarian.

"The trainer decided that if half strength is good, then full strength is better," Buckley said. "The formaldehyde burned and poisoned the elephants legs, causing them to swell to twice their size up to its body."

Staff at the Sanctuary had to clear out an old quarantine barn that hadn't been used since 1999 so the elephant could have a place to rest and heal, Buckley said.

"We never intended to use it again, so it had become a shop," she said. "It took us two full days to clear that out and reestablish the quarantine barn."

Delhi was not afraid of the transition, Buckley said, but is very distrusting. Many times, the elephant has recoiled while staff tries to put medicine on her feet.

The Elephant Sanctuary is Delhi's new home, and Buckley said she doesn't intend to see anyone hurt the animal again.

"Of course, I'm sure the owner will fight this," she said. "I am sure he will take it to court, and over my dead body will he take her away."

Cuneo said that he and his wife, Herta, have spent $50,000 on veterinary care for Delhi during the last 20 months. Cuneo said there was no justification for taking the elephant, which he has owned for 35 years.

"They cannot say this animal was not well-cared for," Cuneo said.

In March, the Agriculture Department is set to argue before an administrative law judge that Hawthorn's license to exhibit animals should be revoked based on 47 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Those violations include not cutting elephants' toenails properly and infections found on Delhi's feet.

Another elephant on the farm was so thin that its hips and spine were protruding, and one was abused during training, authorities said.

Cuneo denies the allegations and says he will fight them.

Last week, the Cuneos released an assessment from San Diego veterinarian J.E. Oosterhuis, who checked Delhi on Oct. 31.

The assessment described problems with Delhi's feet that had not improved. It said Hawthorn's staff "should be commended for their care of Delhi" but also cited Oosterhuis' disappointment with a lack of progress.

Delhi is becoming adjusted to her new surroundings, Buckley said.

"She has free choice access from her barn out to her yard," she said. "She is eating hickory. Eating bamboo, her eyes are bright. She is not at all concerned about anything, so I would say she is well-rested and quite comfortable."

Buckley said she is hopeful that Delhi will overcome this most difficult hurdle.

"Because her condition is caused by her environment and her care, we feel very confident that she will have a full recovery," she said. "That is once we see what the situation is and how far the infection has migrated."


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