Sick circus elephant dies in hot truck
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1997:
ALBUQUERQUE––King Royal Circus employee
Derrell Benjamin Davenport, 23, of Laredo, Texas, and John
Davis, 19, of Champaign, Illinois, were cited for alleged cruelty
and a variety of Animal Welfare Act and vehicular offenses
on August 7, after an African elephant named Heather died in
an overheated, poorly ventilated trailer that Davenport left in
the parking lot of a hotel where by fluke the Albuquerque Zoo
was holding its annual meeting.
A police bicycle patrol noticed the truck swaying and
investigated circa 9 p.m..
Two other elephants and eight llamas survived.
“That trailer was not made to carry anything with a
heartbeat,” said Albuquerque police officer Duffy Ryan.
The interior temperation of the truck was reportedly
120 degrees Fahrenheit. But a preliminary necropsy indicated
Heather died of an intestinal infection, rather than of heat
stress, as animal control officers initially suspected.
Davis, left with the truck, told police that Davenport
had gone to the Albuquerque airport, about two miles away, to
meet someone. Davenport is believed to be closely related to
King Royal Circus operator John D. Davenport, of Von Ormy,
Texas. The animals were apparently en route to winter quarters
in Texas, after performing in Las Vegas.
Carol Buckley of The Elephant Sanctuary in
Hohenwald, Tennessee, took possession of a former King
Royal Circus elephant last year, whom the circus abandoned
due to injury. She told James Pinkerton of the Houston
Chronicle that Heather walked with a limp in a year-old video
of one Las Vegas performance, and speculated that the injury
was due either to poor nutrition or overwork.
The King Royal Circus agreed to pay an $8,000 civil
penalty to the USDA in March 1996 for allegedly allowing
trainer Bella Tabak to abuse an elephant named Mickey during
a series of September 1994 performances in Oregon, about a
month after Mickey either lifted up or knocked over a threeyear-old
girl in Junction City, Kansas, while apparently trying
to grab her cotton candy. In August 1986, settling related
charges, Tabak agreed to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 and to
surrender his USDA exhibitors’ license.
The latest King Royal incident came six days before
USDA assistant secretary for marketing and regulatory programs
Michael V. Dunn personally announced “very serious”
charges against the circus animal rental firm Hawthorn Inc. and
owner John Cuneo, resulting from investigation of the death a
year earlier of an elephant named Joyce.
Joyce collapsed and died from tuberculosis during
dental treatment on August 3, 1996––shortly after performing
for the Circus Vargas in Los Angeles, 10 weeks after the
USDA rejected a Performing Animal Welfare Society request
that she be taken out of performances due to apparent illness.
She had lost about 1,000 pounds during the preceding year, a
weighing on the Los Angeles Zoo scale found.
Complained PAWS president Pat Derby, “The
USDA retained a consultant [to investigate], Alan Roocroft of
the San Diego Wild Animal Park, who had previously been
cited by the USDA for violating the Animal Welfare Act [in
1988] when he and other trainers under his direction repeatedly
beat an elephant named Dunda with an ax handle.”
Roocroft reported that during a three-hour observation,
Joyce appeared normally active, and blood samples he
took appeared normal.
Yet Los Angeles County director of disease control
Shirley Fannin discovered that at death, Joyce’s lungs were
80% destroyed by tubercular scar tissue. Then, a week later,
Joyce’s companion elephant, Hattie, also died of tuberculosis,
en route from Los Angeles to the Hawthorn headuarters at
Grayslake, Illinois. Hattie, a longtime resident of the Los
Angeles Zoo, was sold to Hawthorn in 1990.
Three other elephants and five ponies with Circus
Vargas were quarantined, and 12 staff were tested for TB.
Circus Vargas had not used elephants since 1993, but
rented Joyce, Hattie, and the others from Hawthorn after attendence
fell. Owned by John Cuneo, Hawthorn leases 18 performing
elephants at present––about 10% of all the elephants
used in U.S. animal acts. One, the former Milwaukee County
Zoo elephant Lota, has been an activist cause celebre since the
zoo transferred her to Cuneo in 1990. After Hattie died, actor
Kevin Nealon offered $230,000 to cover the cost of relocating
Lota to Buckley’s sanctuary. Cuneo declined the offer.
TB continued to spread among the Hawthorn elephants.
In January 1997, Cuneo admitted that Lota, too, had
tested positive for TB. Two weeks later, on February 5,
USDA veterinarian Percell Taylor intercepted a tubercular baby
elephant named Nicholas at the the Miami International
Airport, who was being flown from Hawthorn to a traveling
circus in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That brought a 21-day suspension
of all Hawthorn activities licensed under the AWA.
TB also developed among the Los Angeles Zoo elephants.
Whether transmission somehow occurred when Joyce
was weighed on Los Angeles Zoo equipment may never be
known. What is known is that on October 19, 1996, Los
Angeles Zoo elephant keeper Ronald Rotter, 27, was seized
from behind, thrown, and trampled by a 30-year-old female
Asian elephant named Calle. Calle was then temporarily transferred
to Have Trunk Will Travel, a small facility in Perris,
California, pending permanent transfer to the San Francisco
Zoo, where she was to become companion to Tinkerbelle, 31.
Tinkerbelle has been housed alone since the April
1995 death of her former longtime companion, Penny, at age
41. Both Tinkerbelle and Calle were eventually to occupy a
new elephant facility, part of a planned $48 million zoo overhaul
approved by San Francisco voters on June 3.
Orange County People for Animals and PETA campaigned
to have Calle sent to Buckley in Tennessee instead,
but the transfer to San Francisco went ahead on March 21.
On March 24, Calle’s former companion, Annie,
33, died of a salmonella infection. A necropsy discovered that
Annie had suffered from TB, unknown to Los Angeles Zoo
staff, but was apparently recovering when the salmonella took
advantage of her weakened condition. Los Angeles Zoo head
elephant keeper George French and two other resident elephants,
Ruby and Gita, tested negative for TB, but a 31-yearold
African elephant, Tara, tested positive in May, after losing
more than 1,000 pounds in seven months.
In June, while the San Francisco Zoo was still introducing
Calle to Tinkerbelle, the Los Angeles Zoo bowed to
pressure and agreed to send Callee on to Buckley. Within 24
hours, however, Calle tested positive for TB. Under USDA
rules, Calle now can’t be transferred across state lines. Nor
does anyone know yet whether elephants can recover from TB.
Regardless of whatever role Hawthorn and Cuneo
might have had in spreading the TB outbreaks, they do have
history. As a USDA press release summarized, “On August
20, 1994, Cuneo exhibited an elephant named Tyke in a circus
show in Honolulu, Hawaii. While waiting to perform, Tyke
attacked one handler and fatally wounded his trainer [Allen
Campbell, 37]. As Tyke ran out of the building where the performance
was to have occurred, Honolulu police killed Tyke.
Cuneo neither admitted nor denied violating Animal Welfare
Act regulations, but agreed to pay a civil penalty of $12,500.”
Said Derby, “Tyke was an elephant with a history of
problems related to the stress of traveling and training. Tyke
had been disciplined in public as early as 1988, and complaints
had been lodged with the USDA about her treatment. No
action was taken by the USDA then, and the elephant continued
to travel and perform, creating problems in other cities.”
According to Derby, since 1983 “At least 20 people
have been killed by captive elephants performing in zoos and
circuses around the world; at least 60 others have been seriously
injured, including 42 members of the general public who
have been visitors or spectators at zoos, circus, and other animal
exhibits; six children have been injured, mostly during
elephant ride incidents; and at least six elephants have been
killed in retaliation for the injuries they have inflicted.”
A review of notorious cases shows several of the
same circuses involved over and over, while others, notably
the Carson & Barnes Circus and the Ringling Brothers Barnum
& Bailey Circus, have few elephant-related incidents if any.
Both the latter have elephant retirement and breeding programs,
and in one case that ANIMAL PEOPLE investigated, Carson
& Barnes rescued an elephant, well past ever again performing,
who had been abandoned to severe neglect by another circus.
Activist protests, however, have not distinguished
Carson & Barnes and Ringling Brothers from circuses with bad
records. Indeed Ringling Brothers, the most prominent circus,
has probably been hit with the most protests.
Carson & Barnes, at deadline, was sparring with the
Marin Humane Society, of Novato, California, over permit
stipulations imposed in connection with two performances
scheduled for September 30. In late July MHS director Diane
Allevato showed media photos of elephants with huge boils,
horses and ponies with saddle sores, crowded snakes, and a
pygmy hippo without water, all purportedly taken by MHS
director of field services Cindy Machado during the preceding
four days, while following Carson & Barnes through Colorado.
The furor over the August 1996 death of Joyce
brought a 10-day global flurry of media attention to the plight
of circus elephants. In Germany, police discovered four hungry
elephants inexplicably stranded in a railway car and reunited
them with their circus, 25 miles away.
Compassion Unlimited raised a hue and cry in India
against the chaining of a Jumbo Russian Circus elephant named
Moti when he went into musth. Responding to the same case,
Maneka Gandhi and the New Delhi-based group Kindness to
Animals and Respect for the Environment petitioned to ban
public animal acts.
Nando Orfei, head of the 180-year-old Orfei Circus,
told Italian media that a 35-year-old elephant named Baby was
“wasting away” because activists had forced the circus to drop
animal acts, and claimed the resultant lack of human attention
was why Baby beat up a younger elephant named Wanda. Both
suffered trunk injuries. Orfei threatened to shoot Baby, until
zoos in Rome and Naples asked to take her.
But after the uproar settled, problems involving elephants
and circuses went on:
• On October 25, 1996, a 13-year-old male African
elephant named Moxie broke loose from the City of Fun carnival
in Tucson, damaging four police cars. Reportedly owned
by John Strong, of Thousand Oaks, California, Moxie was
inspected by a USDA veterinarian on December 4, who found
that he may have been undernourished––and then disappeared.
The USDA issued an almost unprecendented all-points bulletin.
• On April 13 of this year, Joe Lawson, 20, of
Joplin, Missouri, was treated by Calgary Emergency Medical
Services after an incident at the Canadian Airlines Saddledrome
involving Jan, 26, an elephant trained by Mike Donoho, traveling
with the Al Azhar Shrine Circus. Calgary EMS
spokesperson Doug Odney told Jason van Rassel of the
Calgary Sun that, “It appears the animal handler was bitten on
the head by the elephant and then knocked to the ground.
Circus chair Phil Lunn claimed Lawson “fell down.” In a later
statement, the circus argued that Lawson hit a chain with a
wheelbarrow, startling Jan, who bumped Lawson accidently.
• On May 28, the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus
was embarrassed in Sayreville, New Jersey, when a 40-yearold
elephant named Helen became mired in a pond while swimming
with five others, and required help from heavy equipment
to extricate herself.
Zoos, able to maintain more consistent conditions for
elephants, tend to have fewer problems with behavior in recent
years. Keepers have been safer since the transition over the
past decade from circus-style training to so-called “protected
contact,” which has been accompanied by the demolition and
replacement of the old concrete-and-steel elephant houses at
many and perhaps most American Zoo Association-accredited
zoos. In addition to the new elephant quarters planned for both
San Francisco and Los Angeles, a new elephant facility recently
opened at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, and the Valley
Zoo in Edmonton, Alberta, just spent $50,000 to improve a
10-year-old traditional elephant pen.
However, the elephant death rate in zoos may be
increasing, both because a high percentage of the elephants in
zoos are now of geriatric age, 40-plus, and because elephants
are notoriously hard to breed in captivity.
The first African elephant born in Mexico died 10
days later, in January, and the first female Asian elephant born
in Britain died on May 25, at 15 months. If captive breeding
fails to replenish the captive elephant population, the risk of
extinction of Asian elephants will increase: long favored by
circus trainers, Asians may be more plentiful in captivity than
in the wild, where they have been poached out of much of their
range. Pressure will also grow to resume elephant imports from
Zimbabwe and South Africa, which claim a wild elephant surplus.