Government seizes a herd of elephants from owner accused of mistreating them

March 18, 2004 — For the first time in its history, the Agriculture Department is seizing a herd of elephants from a circus trainer in Illinois in a mistreatment case.

An agreement between the department and John F. Cuneo Jr. and his Hawthorn Corp., which took effect this week, requires the animals to be removed by August from the company's farm in Richmond, Ill., northwest of Chicago. Cuneo also must pay a $200,000 fine.

The department's Animal Care Program will have the elephants moved to other facilities such as sanctuaries, which are yet to be determined, said Darby Holladay, an Animal Care spokesman.

"We get to place the animals," Holladay said. "That's the win for us."

In 1994, he said, Cuneo paid a $12,000 fine after one of his elephants killed its trainer, rampaged through the streets of Honolulu and had to be killed by police.

The Agriculture Department has seized individual elephants before, including one last year from Cuneo, after inspectors found it was not getting proper care. But this is the first time that the department has taken control of an entire herd, Holladay said.

Two of the elephants had tuberculosis, which put the other 14 at risk of contracting the disease, Holladay said. Under terms of the agreement, Cuneo must have the animals treated and the department will watch to make sure they get the care they need.

Cuneo admitted in the 19-point consent decree to violations of the Animal Welfare Act in addition to inadequate veterinary care. Among the violations: He and his company failed to keep the animals at proper distances from people during exhibitions.

The company trains animals and provides animals and trainers to circuses, said David Weintraub, a company spokesman. Cuneo has no plans to buy more elephants, he said.

Cuneo will retain his license to exhibit animals, Holladay said.

The company still has one lion as well as 60 white tigers and 27 other tigers on its property, Weintraub said. Holladay said no problems had been reported in the treatment of the lion and the tigers.

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