A Florida man wants his circus elephant returned. An animal-rights group is pushing for the elephant to stay in a Tennessee sanctuary. And a Lawrence County judge has a decision to make.
Nosey, a 35-year-old African elephant, was seized from Hugo Tomi Liebel, of Davenport, Florida, in Lawrence County on Nov. 9, after the county’s animal control officer contacted authorities about the elephant allegedly showing signs of stress.
A court hearing is set for 9 a.m. Dec. 15 in Moulton before District Court Judge Angela Terry.
In the meantime, Nosey is at the The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, about 80 miles southwest of Nashville in Hohenwald.
Liebel’s attorney, Billy Underwood, of Tuscumbia, said county authorities overstepped their authority when they took control of Nosey and four ponies belonging to his client.
Liebel owns The Great American Family Circus and said Lawrence County took away his livelihood when authorities seized his animals.
An attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said they have records that show years of abuse of the elephant by Liebel.
“It would be a travesty if (Nosey) was returned to her abuser,” said Rachel Mathews, associate director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA. “PETA has tracked Nosey for years with lots of tips from the public. She has had two legs chained, forced to ride in a cramped trailer for hours and given rides to children with her arthritis.”
Mathews said since 1993, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cited Liebel with nearly 200 violations in his ownership of Nosey, including improper health care involving the elephant’s skin and chaining the animal too tight.
“Just days before Nosey was seized, a USDA veterinarian inspected her in Cullman and cited Liebel after finding she had an accumulation of thickened dead skin over her forehead and back,” Mathews added.
She also said that in June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission denied Liebel’s application to renew his captive-wildlife permit — which is required for him to possess Nosey in Florida — after he falsely told the government agency that he didn’t have a tour schedule for the elephant. Tour schedules are used by the commission to conduct animal-welfare inspections.
The administrative appeal in that case is still pending.
Liebel, 65, said he paid USDA a $7,500 fine about five years ago.
“I had moved and didn’t report (that I had moved),” said the native of Budapest, Hungary, who has lived in Florida the past three decades. “I bought more land in Florida that I use to keep Nosey on when we are not traveling.”
He said the reports of 200 violations are “total lies.” He said he travels at least eight months a year with the elephant he values at $750,000, but won’t sell.
“I would never sell (Nosey). I would never sell any of my daughters,” he said.
A USDA spokesman with the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said he could not release any information in the case.
“APHIS was not involved in the confiscation of Nosey, and therefore, we have no jurisdiction over whether she is returned to Mr. Liebel,” said Andre Bell, public affairs specialist with USDA in Riverdale, Maryland.
Mathews said Liebel’s treatment of Nosey “is completely inconsistent with what an African elephant needs to be healthy. … The elephants are incredibly active, incredibly social, enjoy foraging and roaming. Every day she is in that trailer for hours. Those are total inappropriate conditions for her. This is not a temporary condition for her. It’s Liebel’s lifestyle eight to 10 months a year.”
She said the circus lifestyle is detrimental to elephants’ quality of life.
“Arthritis and foot problems are the leading reasons why captive elephants are euthanized,” Mathews said. “Shackling Nosey in chains, forcing her to stand on concrete or in her own waste, and making her perform physically challenging circus tricks are exactly the kind of conditions known to cause arthritis, and she’s been showing signs of the disease for years.”
Liebel said PETA is misinformed, and he knows the elephant he has owned for 34 years.
“Inspectors are not living with Nosey 24/7 like my family and I are,” he said. “I don’t abuse her. She is my daughter. I have three other daughters. I don’t abuse them. … An elephant is like an infant. They can’t be left alone. They need somebody looking after them constantly.”
Underwood said Kim Carpenter, Lawrence County’s animal control officer, has “no knowledge of what needs to be done with African elephants.”
“The elephant had to be chained,” Underwood said about the seizure of Nosey along Alabama 157. “Who would allow an elephant to roam free near a four-lane highway? This case has bothered me how it has been controlled by the animal control officer. … The animal control officer has no authority to make decisions about elephants. She should be worrying about cats and dogs.”
He said his client has “lost thousands of dollars” from the seizure of Nosey due to canceled circus shows.
Callie Waldrep, Lawrence County assistant district attorney, said it was within her authority to ask a judge for the animals.
“When animal cruelty occurs in our county, it is my obligation to address it,” Waldrep said. “And therefore, it was properly within Judge Terry’s jurisdiction” to order Nosey to be taken to the sanctuary.
“It is our hope after the hearing that the elephant will remain at the sanctuary,” Waldrep said. “I don’t think the Leibels have the resources to adequately provide for Nosey’s overall needs.”
Underwood contended PETA doesn’t want elephants to be anywhere but in the wild.
“PETA doesn’t want one single elephant performing or traveling,” he said. “They are the major reason Ringling Brothers circus acts no longer include elephants.”
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed earlier this year, one year after discontinuing its elephant performances.
Animal rights advocates worldwide, including comedienne and actress Carol Burnett, lauded Lawrence County for taking possession of Nosey, who has a strong following on social media.
Some social media postings have called Carpenter “a hero” for doing something the “USDA should have done years ago.”
“We didn’t know it was Nosey,” Carpenter said. “If we did, we would have done the same thing. I stand behind the decisions we made.”
Waldrep and Underwood are subpoenaing witnesses and exchanging information on the case. The original hearing was set for Dec. 11 but, Waldrep said, an elephant expert for the state, from Texas, will be unavailable until Dec. 15.
Kate Mason, communications coordinator with the sanctuary, said the organization is not making any public statements because of the pending court hearing.
According to The Elephant Sanctuary, Nosey was born in Zimbabwe in 1982. She was captured from the wild in 1984 and sent to Ocala, Florida, then transferred to South Carolina in 1986. The elephant was purchased by Liebel in 1988.
The four seized ponies are being evaluated at an undisclosed farm in Lawrence County, Carpenter said.
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