Elephant owner admits guilt in care violations
By JACKIE LOOHAUIS
Posted: March 15, 2004
The owner of Lota the elephant, a former Milwaukee County Zoo star, has settled charges of Animal Welfare Act violations brought against him by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the settlement includes a $200,000 fine and removal of Lota from the owner's facility.
The 50-year-old Asian elephant became famous in 1990 when televised video footage showed her collapsing while being forced into a truck during her removal from the zoo. Her advocates have included actors Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The Hawthorn Corp. and its president, John Cuneo, have admitted guilt in 19 charges of veterinary care violations and violations in handling of all 16 elephants owned by the northern Illinois facility. The charges included failure to handle the elephants "so there was minimal risk of harm to the animal and to the public," according to the settlement.
The USDA settlement was unusual. "Cuneo now has Animal Welfare Act violations on his record. (It's not often someone will) admit guilt during a settlement," said Jim Rogers, spokesman for the USDA.
All 16 elephants at Hawthorn Corp.'s facility in Grayslake, Ill., must be removed by Aug. 15 and donated to a USDA-approved facility, which is yet to be determined.
In November another elephant at Hawthorn was confiscated from the facility and sent to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.
Animal rights activists who had been working on Lota's behalf expressed guarded optimism about the settlement. Amy Joyce of Whitefish Bay, part of a national group working on behalf of the wild animals at the Hawthorn facilities, said: "I'm very excited that the USDA has chosen to make a precedent and fine him. I would be more happy to know (Cuneo's) license had been revoked. He's a repeat offender. My hope is that the USDA does the absolute best thing for the elephants and makes sure the facilities are top notch."
Lota has struggled with tuberculosis, and her future remains uncertain. Carol Buckley, executive director of The Elephant Sanctuary, said Monday she would be in contact with the USDA. "We are interested in taking any of the elephants that we can. I'm just very curious as to where all these elephants are going to go. . . . They're going to need care for the remainder of their lives. I surely hope they don't get absorbed back into the circus industry," said Buckley.
In the 1990s the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County set aside $20,000 to help fund Lota's removal from Cuneo's facility. Society president Gilbert Boese said Monday that money would be available to help Lota now. "The Zoological Society did state we would participate in helping Lota to go to where she should go, and we'll stand by our word," said Boese.
"We favor sending Lota anywhere that she'll receive a high level of care and where she can live out her life," Milwaukee County Zoo director Charles Wikenhauser said in an e-mailed statement. "The Milwaukee County Zoo had tried to legally remove Lota from the Hawthorn Corporation, but the attempts were unsuccessful. The USDA's involvement in the case will ensure that Lota will be placed at a facility that has the means to care for her. The Milwaukee County Zoo has cooperated with the USDA on Lota's behalf. Unfortunately, at this time the zoo does not have the space to house Lota, and she could not be returned here."
From the March 16, 2004 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.