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SEND IN THE U.S.D.A. CLOWNS: How the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) fails to protect America’s captive elephants

Liebel would rack up about 200 violations of the AWA for things like chaining Nosey so tightly by both her front and hind legs. Yet, year after year, the USDA rubber-stamped his annual renewal license.

DEE GAUG: Many people are unaware that circuses are still part of the American culture. The closing of the infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May 2017 did not mark the end of cruelty perpetrated on elephants, who are forced into captivity and made to perform in circuses. Between 25 and 30 traveling circuses, which include caged wild animals, continue to travel and operate in the United States. There are currently more than 60 elephants and hundreds of other animals still being used for human entertainment.

Circus animal cruelty and exploitation are rampant… Animals who are kept in captivity or are forced to perform in circuses are subjected to some of the worst kinds of abuse. Among all these animals, however, elephants suffer the most in captivity as they are highly intelligent and social beings, according to experts, and have complex physical and social needs that cannot be met in any circus or zoo environment…

While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been tasked by Congress to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which was signed into law in 1966 and is the primary federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition and transport… has rarely been enforced. A prime example of this lack of enforcement is the story of Nosey the elephant. Nosey was captured in Zimbabwe when she was two years of age in 1984 and was brought to a Florida ranch with 62 other young elephants. About two years later, she ended up in the hands of former circus clown Hugo Liebel. Liebel used Nosey to perform in his circus and dragged her all over the country in a filthy, dilapidated trailer for more than 30 years.

Over the course of the next three decades, Liebel would rack up about 200 violations of the AWA for things like chaining Nosey so tightly by both her front and hind legs that she could hardly move, failure to provide adequate veterinary care, and failure to have sufficient barriers to protect the public. Yet year after year, the USDA rubber-stamped his annual renewal license. Though Liebel was fined several times, these fines were so minimal that they hardly made a difference and were seen as a small price to pay to keep the circus operational…

Finally, in November 2017, authorities in Lawrence County, Alabama, seized Nosey after Liebel’s truck had broken down. She was subsequently placed at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where she has been receiving much-needed veterinary care for the plethora of ailments she is suffering from as a result of her life on the road and in the care of her owners. She remains in the sanctuary and is thriving there.

Nosey’s story is unfortunately not unique. In fact, it is the norm. Many, if not all, circuses that are currently on the road have extensive histories of federal animal welfare violations related to the handling of their elephants. The USDA inaction makes them complicit in the neglect and abuse of captive elephants. As a result, captive elephants continue to suffer every day that USDA inspectors refrain from doing their jobs, either because they do not care or due to internal pressure that prevents them from doing so…

Animal advocates have long demanded a change to the USDA’s policy of rubber-stamping annual renewal licenses for chronic AWA violators. Up until November 2020, exhibitors seeking an annual renewal license would sign a self-certification form stating that they were complying with the AWA. Even if the USDA had actual knowledge of noncompliance—such as recent inspections that revealed violations of the AWA—the USDA would still renew the license.

The USDA’s Animal Care division is responsible for inspecting more than 12,000 facilities and exhibitors, including circuses and zoos, to ensure these license holders are operating in compliance with the AWA. Unfortunately, the USDA appears to be more concerned with not burdening license holders than with protecting animals and the public… It is not a stretch to say that the USDA is complicit in perpetuating animal cruelty. In February 2017, the USDA, without warning, removed animal welfare records from its website…

In response to pressure from animal protection organizations and the public, in March 2019, the USDA sought public comments on proposed updates to its current licensing procedures and received a staggering 110,000 comments. After decades, this pressure finally prompted the USDA to amend its licensing requirements to eliminate automatic renewals… Under these new rules, “an applicant who fails the first inspection may request up to two reinspections to demonstrate compliance”…

Only time will tell if these new rules will have the desired effect of affording greater protection for captive elephants. Real change will come only with public awareness and legislation. What can be done?… you can make the choice to boycott circuses and zoos that use exotic animals. As journalist and former editor for Vanity Fair magazine Graydon Carter once remarked, “We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest of human traits: Empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior”. SOURCE…

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