Talks in Works to Move Elephants :
McHenry owner agrees to cooperate

 

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 first choice.

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 elephants.

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 to place.

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, Buckley said.

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 together."

Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune

 

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