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Plight of baby elephant sparks animal-abuse probe

nicholas February 8, 1997
Web posted at: 5:10 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Lisa Price

RICHMOND, Illinois (CNN) -- A 3,000-pound baby Asian elephant stuck in an airplane hangar at Miami International Airport has sparked an investigation into charges of animal neglect and abuse by its owner.

The elephant, Nicholas, was detained and denied travel into Puerto Rico, where he was to have performed, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes he may have tuberculosis.

The USDA also alleges that Nicholas' owner, John Cuneo, an animal supplier from northern Illinois, knew about the elephant's illness when he tried to take the animal out of the country. In a phone interview this week, however, Cuneo denied the allegation.

"We had a permit for Puerto Rico, and they knew about the TB and chest X-ray," said Cuneo, owner of the Hawthorne Corp. The USDA responded by issuing Cuneo a 21-day summary suspension of his license.

"He will not be able to exhibit any animals that are covered or regulated under the animal welfare act," said Ron DeHaven of the USDA.


In trouble before

Of the 18 elephants Cuneo rents to circuses and carnivals for hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, 14 are at high risk for tuberculosis, officials said. In fact, in just the last several months, two have died of TB.

And this is the not the first time Cuneo's company has been in trouble. Animal rights advocates say The Hawthorne Corp. has a long list of treacherous animal safety violations.

In August 1994, a Cuneo-owned elephant named Tyke became violent, mauling his trainer to death. The elephant was ultimately shot and killed by police who feared he might further threaten the crowd of onlookers.

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says such aggressive behavior by an animal is, in part, a result of poor treatment.

In a video, PETA claims to have shot inside the Hawthorne Corp., the elephants stand crowded together, chained to the floor in a room where the advocacy group says there is little ventilation. High humidity and heat combine to create a fertile breeding ground for contagious diseases like TB.


"The TB of certain animals, the deaths of certain animals, the fact that (Cuneo) is still moving animals around the country are indications that somebody is not taking the right precautions to protect animals and peoples' health," said Richard Farinato of the Humane Society of the United States.

Even though Cuneo has been charged with three other USDA violations in recent years, Nicholas is once again in his owner's custody. Though the USDA does have the authority to take possession of the baby elephant, it chose instead to evaluate the case when the animal supplier's license suspension expires in 21 days.


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