Since being seized Nov. 9, 2017, by Lawrence County authorities, Nosey has been kept at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. [COURTESY PHOTO/THE ELEPHANT SANCTUARY OF TENNESSEE]

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to prevent the owner of an elephant seized in Lawrence County in 2017 from traveling with and exhibiting the animal in the future.

The USDA filed a request July 9 with the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office for a default decision to terminate the federal Animal Welfare Act license of Hugo Liebel of Davenport, Florida, according to government records.

The USDA accused Liebel of neglecting Nosey, a 35-year-old African elephant he used in his family circus, providing false information to government officials and missing a deadline to respond to a May 6 complaint.

Liebel said he hasn't seen a copy of the May 6 USDA complaint and hasn't missed a deadline.

"It's absolutely not true," Liebel said Wednesday afternoon. "I haven't missed any deadline. I am waiting for the next trial to begin in circuit court."

In the USDA complaint this month, the agency stated: “Permitting respondent to continue to hold an AWA license would be contrary to the act’s purpose of ensuring humane treatment of animals because the respondent has failed to establish and maintain programs of adequate veterinary care for Nosey. … Respondent’s actions, and lack thereof, demonstrate he is unfit to hold an AWA license, and continued licensure of respondent jeopardizes the integrity (of) USDA’s administration of the AWA. … and that said license should be terminated.”

Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney Callie Waldrep said her office supports the steps being taken to protect the circus elephant.

"We are thrilled to finally see the necessary steps being taken to ensure Nosey is never again exhibited in a traveling circus again," she said in a text message Wednesday morning. 

On Nov. 9, 2017, while stopped in Lawrence County having repair work done on his truck and trailer near Alabama 157 just north of Moulton, Liebel had Nosey and four miniature ponies seized by Lawrence County authorities. After allegations of abuse, the elephant was ordered transferred to the Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee in Hohenwald, 80 miles southwest of Nashville and about one hour from Lawrence County.

On Dec. 16, 2017, the day after a 10½-hour hearing in district court, Liebel and his wife Franciszka, owners of the Great American Family Circus, were arrested on misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. They were released after paying $1,000 bail each. The same day, the ponies were returned to Liebel.

At the hearing, a veterinarian from the sanctuary testified Nosey was suffering from excessive dry skin, a bacterial urinary tract infection, roundworms and osteoarthritis, and said the elephant’s gastrointestinal tract was empty.

On Jan. 22, 2018, District Court Judge Angela Terry ruled “the plaintiff has met its burden to sustain the writ of seizure as to the elephant in his cause” and gave custody to the county’s animal control officer. On Feb. 5, Liebel appealed the decision. The case is pending in Lawrence County circuit court, records indicate.

On June 7, 2018, Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig appointed Rodney A. Max of the Upchurch Watson White and Max mediation group in south Florida as mediator in an effort to solve the case, according to court records.

The records show Craig ordered the Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office and Liebel to share in the cost of mediation. Craig also dismissed the Liebel's request for a jury trial and ruled the case would be heard as a new bench trial, if not resolved by mediation.

On Aug. 13, 2018, two weeks before the mediation hearing, attorney Allen Stoner of Decatur stepped down as Liebel’s counsel. He gave no reason for his action.

Liebel said there was nothing to mediate.

"When you take people's property unlawfully, you're wrong and you need to make it right," he said.

Liebel said he has a new attorney but did not name the person.

Waldrep said the sanctuary is the best place for Nosey.

"We are also optimistic this brings us ever closer to Nosey being able to permanently stay at the sanctuary where she continues to receive the best possible care available," she said.

An official with the People for Ethical Treatment for Animals based in Virginia said the agency supports the USDA’s latest action.

“PETA is counting the days until Hugo Liebel’s license is terminated after his years of abusing Nosey,” PETA Foundation Deputy Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Rachel Mathews said in a written release.

PETA’s Media Division Manager David Perle said in the release, “After less than two years at the sanctuary, Nosey is now thriving: She has expert veterinary care, a vast habitat to roam and the opportunity to wallow in the mud. …”

Franciszka Liebel said Wednesday afternoon sanctuary personnel have prohibited them from visiting Nosey.

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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