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WHEN ELEPHANTS WEEP: Roadside zoo elephants suffered for years before dying, new records reveal

An anonymous complaint filed with the USDA asserts that Karen and Beulah were forced to work when they were sick. The day she died, Beulah collapsed three times and each time was made to stand up.

RACHEL FOBAR: Karen and Beulah, two elephants with the Commerford Zoo, a Connecticut-based traveling animal facility, suffered for several years before their deaths in 2019, according to newly obtained records from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. The enforcement records show both elephants were forced to keep traveling and giving rides to children even when they were ill. Animals advocates say the reports reveal fundamental problems with how such businesses are regulated in the U.S… The Connecticut-based zoo travels throughout the Northeast with the elephants and other exotic animals, including camels, ringtail lemurs, a kangaroo, and a zebra…

Karen, a 38-year-old African elephant sold to the zoo in 1984, died of kidney disease in March 2019, USDA records show. She was documented to have suffered kidney trouble since 2017. Beulah, a more than 50-year-old Asian elephant who had been giving rides, providing photo opportunities, and performing with the zoo since 1973, collapsed and died from 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, according to the records.

An anonymous complaint filed with the USDA asserts that the day she died, Beulah collapsed three times and each time was made to stand up. The zoo said she collapsed twice and no one forced her to get back up, according to the records. Shortly before she died, an attendee at the fair photographed Beulah lying down in a grassy section of the parking lot. The zoo said this was not unusual behavior for Beulah…

It’s “shocking” that Karen and Beulah were forced to work when they were sick, even though both the USDA and the Commerford Zoo were aware of their illnesses, says 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 advocated in court, unsuccessfully, for the zoo to release Beulah, Karen, and its third elephant, 49-year-old Minnie, who’s still alive, to a sanctuary.

At one of Karen’s last performances, Fern says, the elephant was bobbing her head and swaying—signs of distress—while children rode on her back. “Nothing was done to prevent [the elephants] from being taken to fairs and forced to engage in activities that are known to cause suffering,” she says…

Minnie, the Commerford Zoo’s last surviving elephant, has been “languishing” alone since 2019, and her last public appearance was in July of that year, NhRP’s Fern says. Based on NhRP drone footage of the two elephant barns and the outdoor enclosure at the zoo’s Connecticut headquarters, 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 isn’t appearing at shows…

“The more we learn about her situation, the more apparent the urgency for getting her to sanctuary is,” she says. The NhRP has offered to arrange and pay for Minnie’s move to a sanctuary, but, Fern says, their offers have been ignored.

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

Oversight of roadside zoos is insufficient, says Christopher Berry, managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an animal advocacy group. The USDA is “asleep at the wheel in terms of regulating these facilities,” he asserts… Though the Animal Welfare Act requires adequate veterinary care, the guidelines are vaguely worded, and USDA inspectors often defer to the facility owners and veterinarians, Berry says. When a facility does violate the law, “there’s very little financial consequence,” he says…

The USDA not only has the authority to issue citations but also to suspend or revoke a zoo’s license to exhibit animals. The agency has cited the Commerford Zoo more than 50 times for Animal Welfare Act violations relating to its animals, including failing to have an attendant present during public contact with elephants, inadequate veterinary care, accumulated soiled hay, poor drainage in the elephant enclosure, and feces behind the elephant barn, according to the NhRP and animal rights group PETA. SOURCE…

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