Thursday morning (2/11/10) the U. S. Department of Agriculture took an African elephant from a home in Miami County, Indiana. The USDA took tigers and lions from the same residence a few days ago.
"The USDA does not confiscate animals haphazardly. When it gets to the point of confiscation, the licensee had to have had repeat violations and not adhered to the rules and the required changes or improvements."
Thursday morning the U. S. Department of Agriculture took an African elephant from a home in Miami County, Indiana. The USDA took tigers and lions from the same residence a few days ago. The USDA claims the animals' living conditions weren't following the law, but the animals' owner, Julius von Uhl, 72, said he wasn't given proper notice of the violations.
von Uhl grew up with the circus in Hungary. When he was 12, von Uhl started learning how to work with circus animals, and by age 15, he was a trainer.
In 1956, von Uhl moved to the United States. After several years of working as a horse trainer and serving in the Vietnam War, he moved to Indiana.
"I bought my own animals and had my own circus. We went from town to town like a gypsy," von Uhl said.
von Uhl owned an African elephant named Twiggy, six tigers and four lions. Melisa Culbertson's been to one of von Uhl's circus performances.
"There were mostly Amish children there. They loved it. They smiled and clapped," she said.
After years of taking his circus on the road, von Uhl decided to retire this year. He made arrangements to sell Twiggy to the Pittsburgh Zoo for breeding. Now, von Uhl said the government robbed him of the money he would have been paid for selling the elephant.
"Not anybody should come to my door and say I have half an hour to do the impossible and take my animals worth money," von Uhl said.
At random over the years, inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would check on the animals at von Uhl's Miami County home.
"For 15 years they've been inspecting this barn and they never said I have to change this. Then all of a sudden, one elephant expert, one opinion, without a hearing or my vet backing me up [they take my elephant]," von Uhl said.
von Uhl said his veterinarian, Dr. H. F. Terrill DVM of the Manchester Veterinary Clinic, just examined Twiggy on February 9, two days before the USDA took her. Terrill's report said of Twiggy, "she's eating, normal stool and urination, appears healthy and happy." Dr. Terrill told NewsChannel 15 he did not think Twiggy shows signs of being in a space too small for her size.
A letter to von Uhl that same day from the USDA stated he was in violation of space requirements stated in the Animal Welfare Act and that Twiggy was suffering as a result.
An inspection report from January 2009 showed von Uhl was told the cages for his big cats weren't big enough and needed to be fixed. von Uhl admits to this violation and said he already bought material to build larger cages. Another inspection report from November 2009 showed those cages and conditions for the cats had not changed.
None of the reports NewsChannel 15 was able to obtain on Thursday showed any notice of a violation with the barn for Twiggy. Just a letter from February 9 stated Twiggy would be confiscated on February 11 if her conditions were not changed to "alleviate the animal's suffering."
However, USDA spokesman Nolan Lemon told NewsChannel 15 that von Uhl was "given ample time to improve his facility and health of his animals. Those weren't adhered to as of our last inspection." Lemon called the conditions deplorable.
"The USDA does not confiscate animals haphazardly. When it gets to the point of confiscation, the licensee had to have had repeat violations and not adhered to the rules and the required changes or improvements," Lemon said.
Culbertson said she called the USDA, asking them to not take Twiggy because she was going to be moved to the Pittsburgh Zoo in a few weeks. She was told no.
"If the elephant wasn't in any immediate health danger, it would be better to take her in a manner in which she is used to traveling and with the person with whom she is used to traveling," Culbertson said.
von Uhl trains Culbertson's horses, and she said she's never seen him harm an animal in any way.
"I feel sorry and sad for him. At one time he was a revered lion tamer who everyone loved and children applauded. Now he's being scorned and called an abuser," she said.
von Uhl said the zoo was going to pay him $150,000 for Twiggy. The zoo couldn't be reached for comment because it's closed due to the recent snow storm.