USDA Seizes Circus Elephants
Decree Under Animal Welfare Act Settles Charges of Improper Care

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2004; Page A03

For the first time since elephants began entertaining people at American circuses more than 200 years ago, the federal government has removed a herd of circus animals from an owner accused of mistreating and mishandling his animals.

Under a consent decree that took effect this week between the U.S. Agriculture Department and John F. Cuneo Jr. and his Hawthorn Corp., 16 circus elephants will be removed from its Illinois facilities by August and sent to other homes. The company also agreed to pay a $200,000 fine.

The removal will end a troubled history Cuneo has had with elephants. One of his animals went on a rampage in 1994 in Honolulu, killing its trainer and running through the streets before being shot and killed. Two other animals got into a fight in Charlotte that ended with the animals crashing into a church and demolishing a car. In 1996, two of Cuneo's animals died of tuberculosis in the same week.

"This is an unprecedented win for Animal Care," said USDA spokesman Darby Holladay, referring to the arm of the agency that oversees the Animal Welfare Act. He said the agency took action because of a documented history of violations by Hawthorn over several years.

Under the consent decree, Cuneo acknowledged that he and his trainers had failed to control the animals properly in public, that he had failed to provide proper veterinary care (including allowing toenails to grow too long, risking an infection,) and allowed the public to feed the animals unapproved food.

In a statement, Cuneo, 73, said yesterday: "In order to avoid the uncertainties of litigation and bring closure to this unfortunate chapter, Hawthorn has decided to settle this matter with the United States Department of Agriculture. Hawthorn and USDA have agreed to work together to find loving homes for these wonderful elephants that have long been part of Hawthorn's family."

The USDA prosecution of animal welfare violations and the consent decree were hailed as a milestone by animal rights advocates, who have become increasingly vocal in arguing that it is inhumane to include elephants in circuses and even to display them in zoos.

Activists say that animals suffer when they are chained to posts for long times -- as happens in circuses and most zoos -- and that training elephants to do tricks can be especially inhumane because it is generally done by inflicting pain. Although a number of circuses have discontinued elephant acts in recent years, others have defended them as proper entertainment.

Last year, the USDA forcibly confiscated another animal from Cuneo after concluding that it was not getting proper veterinary care. That animal was sent to Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre preserve for mistreated or unwanted elephants in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's executive director, said she never imagined that the first confiscation would result in stripping Cuneo of his other 16 elephants.

"Nothing like this has happened before," she said. "The animal welfare laws here are weak to begin with, and at no other time has USDA actually enforced their laws like this. . . . Clearly, these actions will force elephant owners to be more careful about how they treat their animals."

Although pleased that Cuneo will lose his elephants, Buckley said she is concerned that the USDA will not be able to find new homes for the elephants because at least two of them have tuberculosis.

"Cuneo has made a lot of money on the backs of these animals, and now he's getting rid of them when they're less and less useful to him," she said. "Because there is TB in the herd, it's going to be very difficult to find homes for them individually or in some groups. We think they need to remain together as a herd, and that's going to be very hard to do."

Holladay of USDA said that whatever difficulties might arise because some of Cuneo's elephants have tuberculosis, "we and Hawthorn are committed to delivering them to new homes."

Cuneo began Hawthorn Corp. as a circus in 1957. His animals toured the nation and the world, and he gradually became one of the largest providers of circus animals in the nation. But beginning 10 years ago, his operation began making news of a different kind.

Cuneo paid a $12,000 fine after Tyke, an elephant he owned, broke free in a Hawaii building where it was performing in 1994 and ran, killing his trainer and injuring several people before police killed it. In 1996, two Hawthorn elephants with a circus in California died of tuberculosis within several days, resulting in more fines. Last year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Cuneo $37,000 for failing to provide workers with proper protective gear when working with animals with tuberculosis.

At the time, Cuneo told the Chicago Tribune that the citations were the result of a campaign of misinformation by animal rights groups. "We're getting sick of it. It's a witch hunt," Cuneo said. "It gets very tiresome. We have very good people."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been especially active in photographing and videotaping the treatment of Hawthorn's animals. Debbie Leahy, PETA's director of captive animals and entertainment issues, said her organization supplied information to USDA that showed neglect of the animals and unsupervised handling by the public. Some elephants that people fed and petted had tuberculosis, Leahy said.

"Cuneo's has been an especially bad operation, but sadly Hawthorn represents the traditional way of managing and caring for elephants," she said.

PETA has an active campaign to ban animal circus acts as inhumane, and it appears to be picking up some support. A ballot referendum to ban animal circus acts is on the ballot this year in Denver.

Last year, a coalition of animal welfare groups sued Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which tours with 61 elephants, for alleged mistreatment of its elephants, including Asian elephants that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The company denied the charges and said it is actively involved in elephant conservation.

Under the consent decree, Cuneo will keep his license to keep and raise tigers. Last year, he had 87 tigers and one lion in addition to elephants on his farm outside Richmond, about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.

The 20-acre farm is surrounded by pine trees and a 10-foot fence topped with barbed wire. The trumpeting of elephants can be heard sometimes by passersby, according to published reports.

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