Asian elephants are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Circus President, Former Employee Charged in Asian Elephant Purchase

Tina and Jewel, two Asian elephants owned by the circus, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

John Pugh, Wilbur Davenport, and Cole Brothers Circus Inc., entered plea agreements recently in U.S. District Court in Beaumont, Texas to resolve Endangered Species Act (ESA) violations related to the purchase and sale of two Asian elephants named “Tina” and “Jewel.”

Pugh and Cole Brothers Circus Inc. were charged with unlawfully selling the two Asian elephants to Davenport, who was charged for unlawfully receiving the Asian elephants. Pugh is the owner and president of Cole Brothers and Davenport a former employee. Cole Brothers is a circus that performs in locations across the Eastern United States. Pugh was approached by Davenport in 2005 about the purchase of Tina and Jewel, who were owned by the circus.

Asian Elephants are listed as an endangered species under ESA. It is unlawful to purchase or sell an endangered species in interstate commerce without a permit. In limited circumstances, permits are issued when applicants demonstrate the sale or transfer of the endangered species will further scientific research or enhance the propagation and survival of the species. None of the parties possessed nor had they obtained any permit that would have authorized such a sale of Tina and Jewel.

The defendants executed a five year, lease-to-purchase agreement, with the final purchase price of both elephants being $150,000. Davenport performed with the elephants for the circus through the summer and fall of 2006 to pay off the balance owed for Tina and Jewel, and thereafter transported the elephants to his home in Leggett, Texas. Davenport intended to incorporate the two elephants into his own business, which included, among other things, offering the elephants for personal demonstrations, private parties, and events, and elephant rides.

In accordance with the terms of the plea agreement, Pugh and Davenport were sentenced to three years of probation, a special condition of probation being that each must perform 100 hours of community service every year of their probationary term. Pugh was also sentenced to pay a $4,000 fine as well as make a $1,200 community service payment to an organization or organizations working for the conservation or rehabilitation of Asian elephants. Davenport was sentenced to pay a $5,200 fine. According to its plea agreement, Cole Brothers Circus was sentenced to four years of probation and a $150,000 fine.

As stated in the plea agreement, in August 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confiscated Jewel from Davenport pursuant to its authority under the Animal Welfare Act. Davenport then abandoned Tina to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, allowing USDA to transport the two elephants together to the San Diego Zoo.

This case was investigated by the USFWS. Trial Attorney Jessie Alloway and Senior Trial Attorney Elinor Colbourn of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Batte of the Eastern District of Texas prosecuted the case.

Source: Department of Justice

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