Roadside zoo elephants suffered for years before they died, new records show

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Karen and Beulah, two elephants at Commerford Zoo, a traveling pet store based in Connecticut, suffered for several years before their deaths in 2019, according to newly obtained records from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), l agency responsible for the application of the law on the protection of animals. Application records show that the two elephants were forced to continue traveling and taking children for walks even when they were sick. Animal rights activists say reports reveal fundamental problems with the way these businesses are regulated in the United States

Founded in the 1970s by Bob Commerford, the Connecticut Zoo travels the northeast with elephants and other exotic animals, including camels, ringtail lemurs, a kangaroo, and a zebra.

About 70 elephants are kept in some of the 3,000 so-called roadside zoos in the United States, according to Ben Williamson, director of programs for the nonprofit World Animal Protection US. These facilities have USDA licenses to display animals, but none are accredited by the Association. zoos and aquariums, which imposes higher standards of welfare and human care for 241 institutions across the country. “Bad treatment of [captive] elephants in general is quite common, ”says Williamson.

Animals that travel for shows, such as the Commerford elephants, enjoy some protection under the Animal Welfare Act. The law requires “adequate veterinary care” and humane transport, but does not specify that sick animals cannot be transported or used at events.

Karen, a 38-year-old African elephant sold to the zoo in 1984, died of kidney disease in March 2019, USDA records show. It was established that she had suffered from kidney problems since 2017. Beulah, an Asian elephant over 50 who had been taking walks, giving photo ops and performing with the zoo since 1973, collapsed and died of blood poisoning caused by a uterine infection at a fair in Massachusetts in September 2019. She had uterine infections and suspected tumors for 10 years before her death, records show.

An anonymous complaint filed with the USDA claims that on the day of her death, Beulah collapsed three times and had to stand up each time. The zoo said she had collapsed twice and no one forced her to stand up, records show. Shortly before her death, a fair attendee photographed Beulah lying in a grassy section of the parking lot. The zoo said this behavior was not unusual for Beulah.

Commerford Zoo declined to comment. In a 2017 interview, zoo co-owner Tim Commerford told a local reporter: “I grew up with [the elephants] all my life. They are family. Animal advocates can say whatever they want, but they are part of our family. He said the elephants were “in perfect health” and were regularly checked by veterinarians.

It is “shocking” that Karen and Beulah were forced to work when they were ill, even though USDA and Commerford Zoo were aware of their illness, said Courtney Fern, director of government relations and campaigns for the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), a Florida-based animal rights organization that obtained the USDA records in June. Starting in 2017, the NhRP argued in court, unsuccessfully, for the zoo to release Beulah, Karen and her third elephant, Minnie, 49, still alive, to a sanctuary.

In one of Karen’s last performances, Fern says, the elephant shook its head and swayed – signs of distress – as the children climbed on its back. “Nothing has been done to prevent [the elephants] to be taken to fairs and forced to engage in activities known to cause suffering, ”she said.

There is insufficient oversight of roadside zoos, says Christopher Berry, senior lawyer for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal rights group. The USDA is “asleep at the wheel in terms of regulating these facilities,” he says.

The USDA not only has the power to issue citations, but also to suspend or revoke a zoo’s license to exhibit animals. The agency has cited Commerford Zoo more than 50 times for animal welfare law violations relating to its animals, including not having an attendant during public contact with elephants, inadequate veterinary care, accumulated dirty hay, poor drainage in the elephant pen excrement behind the elephant barn, according to the NhRP and animal rights group PETA. It has organized 25 unannounced inspections since 2014, according to USDA spokesman Andre Bell. “Inspectors have been monitoring Beulah and Karen’s state of health to ensure they are receiving adequate veterinary care,” he wrote in an email.

In 2019, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote a letter to Sonny Perdue, then USDA secretary, demanding an explanation of why Beulah and Karen had died, whether their deaths could have been avoided, and why the Commerford Zoo continued to pass USDA inspections after the elephants “prematurely died”.

“Licensees are required to comply with [Animal Welfare Act] providing proper veterinary care to their animals, ”Perdue replied in January 2020.“ Commerford Zoo has provided documentation indicating that Karen and Beulah were under veterinary care at the time of their death and that the care provided was appropriate. “

Berry of the Animal Legal Defense Fund says state and county government agencies sometimes protect elephants better than animal welfare law because state anti-cruelty laws are often more stringent. In 2017, for example, animal control inspectors in Lawrence County, Alabama, found an elephant named Nosy in chains, standing in his own feces without adequate food or water during a show. The Orlando-based Great American Family Circus had been USDA licensed for several years, despite Nosy performing while she was suffering from a skin condition, which made her prone to painful infections and had a history of exposure to tuberculosis. After local authorities intervened, the USDA eventually revoked the circus owner’s license, and Nosy was later transferred to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.

Minor punishments

Although the Animal Welfare Act requires adequate veterinary care, the guidelines are loosely worded and USDA inspectors often defer to facility owners and veterinarians, Berry says. When a facility breaks the law, “there is very little financial consequence,” he says. After several documented violations, the USDA may issue a warning or impose a small fine, typically ranging from $ 2,000 to $ 15,000.

“Typically [the USDA] imposes only very minor fines after years of gross violations of the Animal Welfare Act, ”he said. A zoo can do the math that it makes financial sense to wait until a fine is imposed and pay it, “rather than actually paying for veterinary care, or paying for improved facilities, and so on. take proper care of the animal ”.

“Laws are only valid by their application,” says Williamson. A zoo with multiple USDA citations should expect to have its license revoked, but the agency rarely takes that step, he says.

“It shouldn’t take a Netflix docusery to revoke the licenses of bad animal actors,” he said, referring to cases of King tiger stars Jeff Lowe and Tim Stark, both of whom lost their licenses only after the show highlighted animal welfare concerns and advocates pushed for action.

Willamson supports the Animal Welfare Enforcement Improvement Act, recently introduced in Congress, which would require unannounced inspections before license renewals and prevent license renewals if a facility has more than one documented instance of non-compliance.

The circumstances under which the USDA is considering revoking an exhibitor’s license are “part of the deliberative process” and therefore confidential, the Bell agency spokesperson wrote. “In general, [the agency] examines the seriousness of any breaches that have occurred, a facility’s compliance history, the size of the business, and the facility’s good faith efforts to comply. Bell declined to say whether the agency had considered revoking the Commerford Zoo’s license.

The last elephant in the zoo

Minnie, the last surviving elephant at Commerford Zoo, has been “languishing” on her own since 2019 and her last public appearance was in July of that year, NhRP’s Fern said. Based on NhRP drone footage of the two elephant barns and the outer compound of the zoo’s headquarters in Connecticut, Fern says, she believes Minnie spends most of her time indoors in a concrete stall. In previous statements, the zoo has described a “six-acre yard” where Minnie can spend her retirement.

It’s unclear why she doesn’t appear at shows, but Fern says it could be due to public backlash against the use of stage elephants, especially after Beulah and Karen died. Minnie also has a habit of hurting her owners; she attacked zoo workers on at least four different occasions, according to press accounts gathered by animal rights group PETA.

Minnie’s state of health is also unclear. Last summer, the family of former owners Minnie, Earl and Elizabeth Hammond, started a GoFundMe for $ 2.4 million on behalf of the Commerford Zoo to raise money for its food and general care. “COVID-19 has impoverished the farm that supports her,” the page reads, and Minnie “has been directly affected.” So far, the campaign has raised only $ 2,348.

The USDA doesn’t have the power to grab Minnie just because the zoo is suffering financially, Bell said. “The confiscation authority under the [Animal Welfare Act] is limited to animals that are in a state of unrelieved suffering. At the moment, Minnie is not in a state of distress, ”he wrote.

This is not how Fern sees it. “The more we learn about his situation, the more obvious the urgency of bringing him to the shrine,” she said. The NhRP offered to arrange and pay for Minnie’s move to a sanctuary, but, Fern says, their offers were ignored.

“Minnie deserves freedom… All her life they’ve exploited her for profit,” she says. “If they really care about her as they claim, they should send her to a sanctuary where she can live as freely as possible with other elephants for as long as she has left to live.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between the National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more stories about Wildlife Watch here, and learn more about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, comments, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.


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