It has taken animal activists more than two years to rescue a circus elephant named Queenie from her owner who was charged with abuse and violations of the Animal Welfare Act. This week the 52 year-old elephant was finally freed, but her new home is setting off another controversy.
Last summer, two of the three elephants owned by Wilbur Davenport were confiscated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) because of multiple federal violations. Davenport operated a company called Maximus “Tons of Fun” circus. The elephants’ named Tina and Jewel were placed in the San Diego Zoo and have been thriving ever since. Queenie was left behind tied to a tree on her owner’s property.
Two organizations, In Defense of Animals (IDA) and Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) continued to press for Queenie’s release and finally in February the USDA filed charges against Davenport. On Friday, USDA officials and Davenport came to an agreement to send Queenie to the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.
This decision has enraged both animal welfare groups. They say the zoo’s elephant habitat is outdated, unnatural and too small for even the one elephant that currently lives there. The zoo has been looking to add a second elephant since one died in 2007.
Ideally PAWS and IDA would like to see Queenie and the elephant at the San Antonio zoo moved to one of the sanctuaries run by PAWS. The group had been working with Davenport to place Queenie on their 2,300-acre refuge called ARK.
Pat Derby, who founded PAWS, said she doesn’t have a problem with Queenie moving to a zoo, but this particular display has only one half-acre for the animals to roam.
“If they had expanded and enlarged that space and then said they wanted to take Queenie, I would have been fine with it. But she’s been through enough,” said Doyle.
IDA’s elephant campaign director, Catherine Doyle feels differently. “Queenie should be allowed to retire to the PAWS Sanctuary where she would have the best possible quality of life, including a 50-acre habitat to roam, high quality care, and the peace and quiet she deserves after a lifetime of suffering in the circus,” said Doyle. “The San Antonio Zoo is just the wrong place for Queenie or any other elephant.”
Dr. Mel Richardson, a captive wildlife consultant and veterinarian who worked at the San Antonio Zoo from 1991 to 1995 is worried about the safety of Queenie and the zoo’s current pachyderm resident named Lucky.
“Both Lucky and Queenie have histories of not getting along with other elephants. Putting them together in an antiquated and too-small display is a recipe for disaster. The key to safely and successfully integrating elephants’ starts with space and plenty of it,” said Richardson.
IDA and PAWS are wary the main reason Queenie is moving to the San Antonio Zoo is because of an arrangement they worked out with Davenport and the USDA. Davenport was fined $100,000, but only has to pay $15,000 of that fine if he places Queenie elsewhere by Monday. The agreement allows him to either sell or donate the elephant. Davenport also had his business and animal license permanently revoked as part of the deal.
Although documents do not show that the San Antonio Zoo agreed to pay him, Davenport recently stopped his negotiations for the PAWS sanctuary to take custody.
“PAWS does not pay for any animals,” said Derby. “We had been negotiating with the circus owner to meet all of his demands, so there really was no reason to do this.”
Because Queenie was not confiscated by the USDA, they had no control over where she would be placed. At this time no one knows if Davenport was paid for the elephant.
The San Antonio Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and their elephant program is in compliance with federal animal welfare regulations. But it would have been an act of kindness to place Queenie in a sanctuary after suffering years of mistreatment.
IDA and PAWS are petitioning the USDA to create more strict requirements before reaching agreements with animal abusers.
“They need criteria for placement of animals,” Derby said. “It should be something that is a lovely retirement, not just being shoved into a small space.”
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