By Jeff Long
Tribune staff reporter
February 18, 2005
Negotiations are under way that could send the 12 elephants remaining
at a McHenry County training farm to a new home in Tennessee.
The talks, which began this week, are an about-face for Hawthorn
Corp. and its owner, John Cuneo, who for months resisted donating
the animals to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.
Although details have yet to be worked out, the agreement could
end nearly two years of debate over the pachyderms' fate.
Concerns were raised about the herd in April 2003, when the U.S.
Department of Agriculture charged Hawthorn Corp. with failing
to properly care for the elephants at its training farm near Richmond.
Last March, Cuneo agreed to give up the entire herd in exchange
for being allowed to keep and exhibit his tigers, which also are
housed at the farm. He began seeking suitable homes for the elephants
but complained that the USDA would not approve sites he selected
and missed an Aug. 15 deadline to move the animals.
USDA and Hawthorn officials now say they are eager to move the
elephants as soon as possible and the Tennessee sanctuary is their
But some obstacles remain, among them how soon the sanctuary
could take the elephants and who would help pay the nearly $2
million a year that sanctuary officials estimate it will cost
to care for and feed them.
The sanctuary can't afford the additional costs, and funding
will have to be found for that tab before it can agree to take
them, said its executive director, Carol Buckley.
Buckley said the sides have not yet begun talking about whether
Hawthorn will help pay for the elephants' upkeep.
Buckley said that since Hawthorn agreed to give up the elephants,
the sanctuary has raised nearly $2.8 million, most of which will
pay for a new 16,000-square-foot barn that will make room for
The sanctuary signed a contract this week for the barn. But because
it will take six months to build, Buckley told the USDA that the
earliest it could take the elephants was Sept. 1.
Cuneo, who could not be reached for comment this week, has always
denied mistreating the elephants.
The USDA confiscated one of Hawthorn's elephants and sent it
to the Tennessee sanctuary in November 2003, saying its health
was in imminent danger.
The elephant, Delhi, continues to recover from infections in
its feet that USDA officials said were exacerbated by improper
chemical treatment under Hawthorn's care.
Two additional elephants were moved to the sanctuary last November
under the agreement with the USDA. They had been difficult to
place because they had tested positive for tuberculosis in the
past and the government required them to be quarantined.
Because all of Hawthorn's elephants have been exposed to the
contagious disease, quarantine regulations have made them difficult
One of the elephants sent to the Tennessee sanctuary in November,
Lota, a 54-year-old Asian, died Feb. 9. Buckley said the preliminary
diagnosis was tuberculosis, which Lota had for years.
"When we got her, it was hospice care," Buckley said.
The second elephant, Misty, has not shown any signs of the disease,
Buckley said. But she remains in quarantine.
"There are a couple of roadblocks," Buckley said of
the negotiations. "One of the biggest is that the USDA wants
the elephants moved immediately."
She said the sanctuary also wants medical records for the Hawthorn
elephants and an opportunity to visit them at the Richmond farm
to better understand their habits and behavior.
Three of the elephants still at Hawthorn have been labeled aggressive,
Cuneo's lawyer, Derek Shaffer, reiterated the denial that the
animals were ever mistreated.
USDA spokesman Jim Rogers would say little about the new negotiations
because talks are continuing.
"We're interested in the animals being placed in a facility
that can take them," Rogers said. "We want to be able
to move the animals as soon as possible."
Shaffer said a major factor in the sanctuary's favor is that
the elephants have been together for many years.
"For decades," he said. "Elephants live long lives.
They have complex social interactions and would benefit from staying
Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune