Trainer Cited in TB Case: Employees May Have Contracted it from Elephants

By Jon Yates
Tribune staff reporter
September 26, 2003

Federal officials have cited a McHenry County animal trainer for failing to protect his employees amid fears that some may have contracted tuberculosis from infected elephants.

In citations issued last week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged John Cuneo's business, Hawthorn Corp., with failing to provide workers with protective clothing, failing to label a barn in which an infected elephant is housed, and failing to provide a sufficient medical monitoring program.

Charles Shields, area director for the OSHA office in North Aurora, said the citations were issued after some Hawthorn employees tested positive for TB.

Shields said the tests do not necessarily mean the employees contracted tuberculosis from the elephants, but rather that they were exposed to the disease at some point in their lives.

None of the employees is considered contagious, Shields said, but officials are worried that other employees could be at risk.
"What we're concerned about is tuberculosis transmission, in this case from elephants to humans," Shields said.
Federal officials have been watching Hawthorn since 1996, when two of its elephants died of tuberculosis. Cuneo agreed to a $60,000 fine and a 45-day license suspension after the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty charges in that case.

In the most recent case, OSHA wants Cuneo to correct the problems and pay a fine of $37,100.

Cuneo says the citations are the result of an ongoing 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."

Earlier this year, the USDA cited Hawthorn with 47 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, for everything from failing to cut elephants' toenails to improperly treating an elephant who was suffering from severe chemical burns. In that case, USDA officials are seeking to revoke Cuneo's license. No court date has been set.

Cuneo, who has run his business out of Richmond, Ill., for more than 45 years, said he will meet with OHSA officials Oct. 1 to discuss the most recent citations.

He believes some of his employees have tested positive for TB because they received tuberculosis vaccinations when they were younger. He also said there is no history of tuberculosis being transmitted from elephants to humans.

"We're talking manufactured trouble," Cuneo said. "It's a political thing."

Craig Conover, medical director of the Division of Infectious Disease for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said it is often difficult to determine when or where a person contracted TB. While people can test positive for tuberculosis after simply receiving a vaccination, Conover said it is uncommon.

Conover said there is some evidence tuberculosis can spread from elephants to humans, most likely the same way it spreads among humans--through close physical contact. Generally, he said, the disease is spread through the air, such as in a cough.



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