|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Stories Added - August 2009
Copyright 2008 - Polk County Publishing Company
Elephants Seized from Leggett
Polk County Enterprise - August 2009
LIVINGSTON – Federal agents came for one, but seized two elephants from Willie Davenport, 24, of Leggett on Thursday. A spokesman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims the animals had been mistreated and the seizure was necessary for the benefit of the elephants.
The two Asian elephants, Jewel, 45, and Tina, 42, have been in Davenport’s care for just over two years.
They, along with Boo, 52, are part of a traveling show Davenport produced for circuses, carnivals and other events around the country as his family has done for the past 60 plus years. He is a third-generation elephant handler.
It was the second attempt in a week by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a branch of the USDA. The agency had previously attempted to seize one of the elephants Saturday, Aug. 15, but its efforts were thwarted when Davenport declined to assist the agents in the loading process.
Authorities returned Thursday with more manpower and lots of guns. As agents with automatic assault rifles walked the perimeter of the compound, USDA Field Specialist Dr. Denise Sofranko waited inside a nearby vehicle and directed the operation.
Jewel, 45, was seized by federal authorities “for failure to provide adequate and necessary care,” according to the USDA seizure order dated Aug. 15, just two days after a veterinary specialist released his preliminary findings from a July 10, procedure to find the cause of the weight loss.
Tina was taken as well when Davenport was forced to sign a voluntary release form. Agents threatened him with additional charges and fines if he did not willingly turn her over.
With his finances exhausted and his will to continue the fight shattered, Davenport signed the paperwork.
In a statement released Thursday, Aug. 20, Acting APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea said:
REGARDING THE CONFISCATION OF AN ELEPHANT FROM A LEGGETT, TEXAS, FACILITY:
Today, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), in conjunction with local and federal law enforcement officials, completed the confiscation of an elephant, known as “Jewel”, by removing her from the Maximus “Tons of Fun” LLC facility in Leggett, Texas, following a thorough investigation into the animal’s care and treatment.
APHIS also removed a second elephant (“Tina”), which the owner of the facility relinquished to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
APHIS takes the protection of animals very seriously. One of our core missions is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which is the federal law that ensures that proper standards of care are met for the humane treatment of animals exhibited to the public. Our veterinarians and animal care inspectors are deeply committed to making sure that exhibited animals receive appropriate care and exhibitors comply with the AWA. When we find that an animal is in a condition of unrelieved suffering, we will confiscate the animal and move it to a new facility to ensure that its care meets AWA requirements.
Jewel and Tina will be transported together to a zoo that has been accredited by the American Zoological Association. They will be housed together at the zoo. We chose this facility because it will provide Jewel with care that best matches her particular needs, as well as a new enclosure with other elephants on-site. APHIS and zoo employees, including veterinarians specializing in elephant care, will be transporting these elephants.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) was quick to deny involvement in the seizure. Chief Deputy Byron Lyons said they were not informed U.S. Marshals were in Polk County until they were notified by the Enterprise and a 911 call from Leggett school staff when officials attempted to stage the operation from their campus.
“We went on scene to keep tensions down for the Polk County people,” Lyons said. “We knew a lot of people were upset by the seizure. We had no dog in the hunt with them seizing the elephants.”
“There was no cooperative effort. We were not contacted prior to their arrival,” Polk County Sheriff Kenneth Hammack said Friday. “I didn’t know anything about the elephants being seized Thursday. I went to visit (Polk County Farm Bureau President) Marty Lowe and he was headed to the Davenport place and I went with him.”
Hammack said when they passed the Leggett school on FM 942 he noticed a PAWS 18-wheeler blocking the entrance to the school. He proceeded to the Davenports and saw law enforcement officers from the Office of Inspector General assisting the USDA. The sheriff added he and the USDA staff member that initiated the seizure never exchanged words.
Some time later, Lyons notified him that PCSO was getting calls from concerned community members and had already dispatched Sgt. Jason Paske and Deputy Mark Dubose to the scene. Those deputies and the sheriff remained at the site but took no part in the seizure.
Local residents gathered at the entrance to the compound in hopes the seizure would be called off again as it had been the previous Saturday. Their prayers were not answered though as, not one, but two elephants were seized that day.
“We all think this is a bunch of bull,” Sarah Harrington said. “They’ve put that boy through hell over this.”
“It’s not in Willie’s nature to be hurtful or hateful,” Melinda Sweeten said.
A mistrust of federal regulators and a sense of government intrusion into private lives left many frustrated at what was taking place. They felt they were being kept away from witnessing cruel and unusual punishment from the government agents.
“If people don’t want to be seen they’re doing something wrong,” Clay Ellis said. “It’s like the police helping someone who is robbing your house.”
Although people were angry about the situation, there was never any danger of a riot. Much of the crowd was neighboring residents who have seen the elephants over the years and had come to enjoy seeing them from time to time when they least expected it.
“I remember one morning I was driving to work and there was a fog over the road,” Tim Meadows said. “I could see a large shape up in the distance but couldn’t quite make it out. As I got closer I thought it might be an elephant but just the notion of an elephant walking along a country road early in the morning was enough to make me doubt what I was seeing. Sure enough, though, as I got closer I saw Willie and his elephants out for a morning stroll.”
Tim Meadows said he often watched the place while Davenport was out on the road. At one time the Davenport family had lions, tigers and other performing animals but over the years had given them up for one reason or another.
Davenport’s grandfather was a performer with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at one time, and would do a show with more big cats in the ring than any other show around. Those were the glory days for the Davenport family and local residents always looked forward to their homecoming.
“It was fun when someone would pass the word that they were home,” Tim Meadows said. We would all go out to watch the show.”
“But that was when it was a full circus,” Sarah Meadows said. “They’re a part of our natural habitat, they’ve been here for so long.”
Community leaders rallied to support Davenport. Polk County Farm Bureau President Marty Lowe and Farm Bureau board members Bill Bergman and David Burns spent the week trying to stop the seizure proceedings. They went to U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady’s office in Conroe with Davenport Wednesday morning and called the offices of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn as well as State Senator Robert Nichols.
“We’re on the ‘Free Willie’ campaign,” Bergman and Burns said.
Davenport’s local veterinarian Milton Thiel DVM, was in surgery with a sick dog when he got word of the second seizure attempt. He finished up the surgery as quickly as prudently possible then closed his practice for the day. He and eight of his staff members came to witness what they all thought to be an unjust action by the government.
Thiel was repeatedly denied access and waited patiently with the rest of the crowd outside of the compound. When asked why the seizure was taking place he was quick to say it was not because of any physical mistreatment.
“I guess it’s the weight more than anything,” Thiel said. “As far as abuse, there’s been no abuse of these animals.”
Thiel was as shocked as everyone else when the seizure order came through. Just a month prior on July 10, approximately 15 veterinary workers and doctors gathered to try to diagnose the problem Jewel is having. Together they anesthetized her and ran a camera down her throat to try to identify the cause for a weight loss problem.
An elephant specialist from San Diego, Dr. Jim E. Oosterhuis, DVM, directed the procedure. He submitted his preliminary report on Aug. 13 recommending the elephants not go on the road but remain in the compound until his final report could be prepared. That report is expected to be completed by Monday and according to Dr. Oosterhuis it will say Davenport failed to provide adequate care.
“These elephants should not be performing,” Oosterhuis said. “He has not taken care of them properly. That is why I recommended they stay where they are.”
Many in the community feel, regardless of the findings, Davenport should have been given time to correct the problem as he had done in the past. When Davenport first acquired the elephants in 2007 they were ordered off the road because of weight loss.
The previous owner, James Pugh, became ill with colon cancer and was unable to provide for the elephants as he had done in the past so he sold them for $150,000, according to Davenport. He brought them to Leggett where he fattened them up for nearly a year before the USDA gave him permission to take his show back on the road.
“The government decided to take Jewel before Dr. Oosterhuis and Willie could get together to come up with a course of action for her,” Thiel said.
Today, Willie Davenport is left with just what he started with. A single elephant named Queenie that everyone calls Boo. She is considered to be a family pet and has been with the Davenport’s since 1974.
He gave up his exhibitor’s license last week and was fined $3,000. He plans to give up the circus life and go back to school to become a veterinarian.
“I want to prove I can care for animals and that I did nothing wrong,” Davenport said.
With his finances drained from the ongoing battle with the federal government, people have been offering donations to assist with Davenport’s legal expenses and his education. A fund has been set up in his name at First National Bank of Livingston. Anyone wishing to donate is encouraged to send a check to:
First National Bank
P.O. Box 671
Make the check out to First National Bank and write ‘Willie Davenport Benefit Fund’ in the memo section.