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Placement of elephant riles PAWS officials

Galt sanctuary leader wants better conditions for former circus animal

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Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 12:00 am

More than a decade ago, a Galt-based animal sanctuary took up the cause of several elephants owned by a circus family, documenting alleged abuses and violations of federal laws.

Last summer, two of the family's remaining three elephants were confiscated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and ultimately placed in the San Diego Zoo. On Friday, USDA officials and the owner, Wilbur Davenport, agreed to send the final elephant to the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.

Officials with Performing Animal Welfare Society (known as PAWS) were incensed, saying the zoo's elephant area is too small for one elephant, let alone two animals that had been subject to years of harsh treatment.

"USDA's job is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and to protect the interest of the animals, and in this case they clearly have not done so," said Pat Derby, founder of PAWS, which has sanctuaries in Galt, Herald and San Andreas.

A former Hollywood animal trainer, Derby had offered to house the elephant at the San Andreas sanctuary, a 2,300-acre area called ARK 2000.

Instead, Queenie the elephant is going to the San Antonio Zoo, which has been looking for a second elephant since one died in 2007. Derby doesn't oppose zoos, but she said the 52-year-old elephant deserves more space.

"San Antonio has 3,500 animals on 50 acres. The elephant has one half-acre. 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," Derby said.

Zoo officials did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the elephant program is in compliance with federal animal welfare regulations, said Dave Sacks, spokesman for the USDA.

The zoo's website says it is inspected twice yearly by the USDA, and has always passed inspection. Their current elephant, named Lucky, has two full-time veterinarians and receives proper nutritional and medical care, the zoo's director wrote in an undated letter posted on the website.

Queenie is going to the zoo because Davenport, her owner, reached an agreement with them. If the elephant is not transferred by Monday, it negates a deal Davenport reached with the USDA.

In August, the USDA removed two elephants from Davenport's care. They subsequently filed charges against him for violating various animal welfare laws.

Through Friday's agreement, approved in Washington, D.C. by an administrative law judge, Davenport's animal license will be permanently revoked. It includes his business, Maximus Tons of Fun, LLC, based in Texas, where he also lives.

He was fined $100,000, but will only have 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, and does not indicate if the San Antonio Zoo agreed to pay him.

Because the elephant was not confiscated, the USDA didn't have control over where it was placed, Sacks said. He also did not know if Davenport was paid for the elephant.

PAWS does not pay for any animals, said Derby, who didn't know if that was a factor.

She was frustrated, though, because attorneys had actually been working out a deal with Davenport.

"We had been negotiating with the circus owner to meet all of his demands, so there really was no reason to do this," she said, explaining that some of those demands included allowing Davenport to visit the animal.

She wants the USDA to have more strict requirements before reaching such agreements.

"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."

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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