KEWANNA — Both sides of a heated debate converged in Fulton County this weekend, all surrounding one of the Kewanna Fall Festival's biggest attractions.

Her name's Nosey, a 35-year-old African elephant that tours the country with the Great American Family Circus under the direction of Florida resident Hugo "Tom" Liebel. The family has owned the elephant since 1988, and she has entertained thousands of circus and festival goers across the country over the past three decades.

But members of the "Save Nosey Now" advocacy group who came to Kewanna this past weekend to protest the Great American Family Circus said there is a sad side to Nosey.

"The lifestyle they [elephants] are forced to lead is very unhealthy for them," Logansport resident Diana Brown said.

Brown was one of the organizers of Sunday's protest, and she said it all boils down to educating the general public about how elephants should be treated.

"They're very social animals, and they're meant to live in family groups," she said. "To take them and make them live a lonely life, that's just cruel. We're trying to educate the people that riding the elephant looks like fun, but it's not kind to the elephant. Forcing her to entertain is not kind to the elephant."

Fellow organizer Sandie Sanjer agreed with Brown's sentiments. Sanjer lives in Ohio but came to Kewanna over the weekend to help spearhead the peaceful protests. She has followed Nosey's story for about four years now.

Calling herself an advocate and not an activist, Sanjer said she is not associated with national organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. She just wants to see Nosey treated humanely, she said.

Addressing the elephant's health and living conditions, Sanjer said she believes that Nosey isn't living the fairy tale life the audience often sees.

"When you meet her, she's implanted in your heart and soul," she said. "She just takes over. And you can't help but look at her face and see the distress she's under. Her spine has sunken in, and they keep her confined in a tiny trailer that was actually designed for carrying cargo. And the temperature in there is awfully hot."

Liebel disputes the accusations of mistreatment.

Along with the elephant's physical conditions, the women also cited the number of Animal Welfare Act violations — over 200 in all — that they say the Liebel family has received over the years. Some of those violations include improper handling and treatment of Nosey, withholding food from her for training purposes and leaving the elephant unattended for long periods of time, the women said.

Just this past June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission denied renewal of the Liebel family's state handling license, according to an enforcement letter issued by that agency. That means Nosey is not allowed back into Florida at this time. The family is currently appealing the commission's decision, according to Liebel.

In recent years, government officials have even gotten involved in the Nosey debate. In 2015, several members of the House of Representatives co-signed a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture addressing Nosey's welfare and management. In the letter, the Congress members urged the secretary to help remove the elephant from the Liebel family.

"Nosey has reportedly undergone long-term abuse and has suffered serious, willful and chronic violations of the Animal Welfare Act," the letter read. "As members of Congress, we must continue to advocate for the humane treatment of animals and protect all animals, large or small, domestic or wild, from mistreatment."

Most recently, former New Jersey Senator Raymond Lesniak sponsored a bill called "Nosey's Law" in 2016, calling for an end to the use of elephants in traveling circus shows across the state of New Jersey.

Brown addressed the senator's sponsorship, stating that Lesniak is just one of thousands of people around the world working diligently to help Nosey.

And when asked what she would like to see happen with the elephant, Brown said she wants to see Nosey live the rest of her life in an elephant sanctuary like one she visited in Tennessee last month. Brown said similar sanctuaries are also set up in California and Georgia. The areas lets elephants roam free like they would in a natural habitat.

"They're never on display and never made to perform again," Brown said. "They just live their life in peace."

But those involved in the local festival portrayed Nosey and her handlers in a very different light from that cast by "Save Nosey Now" advocates.

Tom Mate, the festival's organizer, said he's been friends with the Liebels for several years and said he's never seen any abuse toward Nosey.

"If they were abusing it, then take it and put it somewhere to be cared for," he said. "But that's not the case. This is not that situation."

Mate said he receives countless of telephone calls and emails surrounding the elephant's appearance at the festival, and this year was no different. And while many of those conversations are negative, he also said that the number one question festival-goers ask is about the whereabouts of Nosey.

The public wants to see her there, he said, citing how people were sad last year when she didn't make an appearance.

Robert Engesser owned one of the other animal exhibits at the festival, and he agreed with Mate. Engesser's "Jungle Safari" petting zoo and animal rides featured such animals as monkeys, tigers, kangaroos and camels, and he said he has also seen his share of protesters.

"Anytime you have animals, you have people with concerns," he said. "There are some people that think we are exploiting or abusing the animals. But just because you use an animal doesn't mean you are abusing it."

In Nosey's particular case, Engesser said the thought of the Liebel family abusing the elephant is a fallacy.

"When you spend that much time with them, to abuse them is silly," he said. "That elephant is their family, and if you work with them and are around them that much, you see it and realize that."

But perhaps no one is more at the center of the debate than Hugo Liebel himself.

Speaking on the issue Sunday afternoon, Liebel said he is a man that has nothing to hide.

"I don't have to prove anything," he said. "We've been coming here for nine years. I don't have to defend myself because I have all the legal papers. The federal government said they can't do anything with me because I did nothing wrong."

Liebel also echoed a sentiment shared by Mate and Engesser, stating he has other animals too, but people only focus on Nosey.

"I own six horses," he said. "If the elephant was abused or mistreated, I would think the same owner would abuse and mistreat the horses also. So are we discriminating? How does that work?"

Liebel finished by talking about his family and how Nosey has been a part of their lives for the past 30 years.

"To me, she's worth millions and millions," he said. "She's grown up with my kids. She plays with them. I'm sentimental. These people think all I'm seeing are dollar bills, but that's just not the case."

Reach Kim Dunlap at kim.dunlap@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5150.

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