Animal-rights activists decry circus elephant’s treatment

Nosey the circus elephant shares a pen about 30 feet in area with a small pony on a lot off U.S. 1 in south Miami-Dade County on May 1.
Nosey the circus elephant shares a pen about 30 feet in area with a small pony on a lot off U.S. 1 in south Miami-Dade County on May 1. The Reporter

Nosey the elephant’s journey from Africa to the United States happened more than 30 years ago on a retrofitted airliner owned by an eccentric millionaire with an affinity for wild animals.

She was part of a 1984 airlift from Zimbabwe paid for by Arthur Jones, founder of the Nautilus exercise machine empire. Her parents were killed in a cull organized by Zimbabwe’s government. Nosey and roughly 60 other elephants lived on Jones’ 600-acre Jumbolaire property in Ocala until the late ’80s, when she was bought by a former circus clown from Davenport, Fla., named Hugo Liebel, who has been taking her on the road to perform ever since.

She appeared in a traveling circus that visited south Miami-Dade County last weekend — doing tricks for the audience under the big top and giving people rides on her back in a small pen. According to animal-rights activists, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, Nosey is being mistreated by Liebel and the numerous circuses he contracts with nationwide.

Her living conditions are inhumane and she’s forced to perform painful tricks and carry more people than her body can handle without pain, Liebel’s critics argue.

“The violations are egregious,” said Denise Gaug, a retired Massachusetts attorney and member of the new nonprofit Save Nosey Now. “Abuse, severe neglect, no air conditioning in her travel trailer. Just filthy conditions.”

On a lot at 22620 South Dixie Highway, workers with the Golden Ring Circus were taking down the big blue tent and preparing to move on to their next show Monday morning. Nosey stood beside the tent, in a small pen made up of moveable metal gates about 4 feet high tied together. A small pony shared the space, which was about 30 feet in area.

Other than the enclosure keeping her in, Nosey was tethered by a metal chain wrapped around her left hind leg.

Nosey has been on activists’ radar for several years, and violations issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service against Liebel go back at least to 2005. But Gaug said most of those complaints ended with some sort of settlement from Liebel and a slap on the wrist issued by the USDA.

“They’re equipped to tell you what pesticides to put on your crops and what to feed your cows,” Gaug said. “They’re not equipped to handle this.”

Liebel could not be reached for comment. Nor could representatives with the Golden Ring Circus, the San Antonio, Texas, operation that put on the venue showcasing Nosey last week.

USDA inspectors cited Liebel with 13 violations in March 2013 alone, including for inadequate veterinarian care and housing for Nosey, sanitation issues and issues with her pen, among others. The agency fined Liebel $7,500, which he paid, according to an email sent last April between a USDA inspector and a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer.

But as USDA inspector Gregory Gaj wrote FWC Capt. Kara Hooker in that email, prior violations and enforcement actions are not cumulative and cannot be factored in by USDA when the agency investigates an animal owner for potential new violations.

“FYI... Once an enforcement action is taken it closes off all past violations and they can not be used in the future,” Gaj wrote.

Abuse cases of captive animals cases are handled on the state level by the FWC. The FWC’s Maj. Rob Beaton said his office received a complaint about Nosey’s Homestead appearance and that that he “is in communication with the complainant.”

“The FWC’s role in exhibits such as these are primarily focused on fencing and public safety,” Beaton wrote in an email. “However, we do also inspect for sanitation conditions as well.”

Beaton said Nosey “is frequently inspected by the FWC as well as USDA Animal Care inspectors. USDA staff is trained in animal care and health has noted no violations in their last two inspections. One of the inspections was at a traveling exhibit in South Carolina on April 4. This exhibit would be very similar to what you observed in Homestead.”

But Gaug and others trying to get Nosey placed in an environment with more humane living conditions argue Liebel continues to violate both state and federal rules for keeping and exhibiting elephants.

“FWC elephant regulations are very stringent,” Gaug said. “The problem is, stringent regulations without enforcement are pointless.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204