Elephant subject of controversy

ATLANTA There has been a lot of conversation concerning an elephant named Nosey at this year’s Montmorency County Fair. Nosey is a 31-year-old African elephant and is a key part of the Liebel Family Circus.

The traveling family circus offers elephant rides, entertainment, pony rides and face painting at the fair by all the members of the Liebel family. Tom Liebel, a native of Hungary, and his family of seven travel all around the United States to different fairs and festivals, providing entertainment for people of all ages. The family resides in Florida on their time off.

Over the last several years the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has been keeping a close watch on Liebel and his animals, encouraging fairs, festivals and circuses to cancel his shows by calling and informing them of allegations against Liebel.

“We have been following Nosey for several years,” PETA director of captive animal law enforcement Delcianna Winders said. “When we heard nothing back from the fair about canceling the elephant rides, we encouraged our members to call.”

And call they did. Many members from PETA called the Montmorency County Courthouse and sent emails regarding Nosey, according to Debbie Nagel, secretary to the board of commissioners.

Montmorency County Undersheriff Brian Crane was informed of the concern, and said deputies had been to the Atlanta fairgrounds to observe the elephant and her owners, and found “nothing visually wrong with the animal,” and said there were “no red flags saying anything was done illegally.”

Montmorency County Fairboard President Deb Klein confirmed that a veterinarian was at the fairgrounds on Tuesday and gave a certification of health to the elephant, which according to Liebel, is something he has to do every month to continue to have Nosey in his show.

“Every month, by law, for business and traveling we must have a certification for her,” Liebel said. “It was three days until her certificate was up, so we called for a vet to come. People should come observe to have a better idea of what we’re doing and see it firsthand. She obeys very nice and by voice command.”

Liebel said that by calling a vet, people started to question his motives. Liebel also agreed to being formally charged with animal welfare act violations.

“I am a man of principles, but I am only human,” he said. “PETA had allegations. The government said you don’t have a case. Now they are so mad that they will increase the pressure on me. I don’t have to defend myself against PETA. If I did something wrong, they would’ve pulled my license. All the government inspections are all good.”

Although everything checked out with his most recent inspection, Liebel hasn’t been so fortunate in the past. Within the last few years, he freely admits to having around 30 allegations filed against him from the United States Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. There was a penalty of $7,500, which he paid after he hired a lawyer to go through the alleged violations.

“The lawyer said they had nothing on me; no proof,” he said. “So I paid the $7,500.”

Not all the allegations filed against Liebel were about Nosey. Some concerned a pair of spider monkeys he owned that had reported incidents at shows.

“We are animal lovers,” Liebel said. “We also believe in family. I love this life. We have been show people for 500 years, and we can prove it. We are entertainment. We all can live together but we have to respect each other. They have an agenda and they have a lot of time.”

Liebel adopted Nosey when she was around a year old and about four feet high.

“I raised her. We have a beautiful barn and land for her here,” he said. “She is a part of my family.”

However, according to Winders, a routine vet certification does not certify health of such an exotic animal.

“What is required is a vet certificate. It’s very lenient. He (Liebel) has vet certificates, but we urge special veterinary care from an independent expert who is not partial to the business,” Winders said. “Captive elephants often develop foot problems and arthritis from being foot chained. It would be better to have someone independent and not from the industry to evaluate her condition.”

Nosey isn’t the only entertainment elephant PETA keeps its eye on.

“We monitor all elephants used in entertainment,” Winders said. “We were especially concerned about Nosey after her companion died. She was alone. A life on the road deprives her from moving around. Elephants in the wild walk up to 30 miles a day. She is a high priority for us because she is kept alone. Another aspect of violations against Liebel include dangerous public access and contact with Nosey. Several of the allegations referred to dangerous public contact, including failing to maintain an adequate barrier between Nosey and the public, putting both at risk.”

Liebel said some fairs do cancel his circus because of the calls, and some do not, but it is their choice and he respects their decision.

“Say a lie long enough, and it’s going to become a truth,” Liebel said. “If we feel we are not welcome, we will leave. We are show people. This is the greatest country on God’s great Earth. People can have their own opinions. I will not tell them what to believe.”

Liebel, Nosey and the rest of his family will be performing and giving elephant rides at the Montmorency County Fair through Saturday in Atlanta.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at ngrulke@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.