PETA files complaint against Richmond facility

RICHMOND – A Richmond-based circus training facility has come under fire by an animal-rights group, according to a news release.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for the revocation of Hawthorn Corp.'s license and criminal charges against its owner, John Cuneo, and exhibitor Lance Ramos.

The complaint is based on a "whistleblower's sworn affidavit" alleging the physical abuse of tigers at the facility, including whipping them in the face and failing to provide veterinary care, the news release stated.

"The whistleblower['s name] has been redacted to protect that individual's privacy," PETA spokeswoman Carney Anne Chester said.

When asked whether protecting the person's employment was a concern, Chester replied that the concern was privacy. The complaint said the person personally witnessed the events in the affidavit on several occasions.

Cuneo denied there's any abuse occurring at the facility, praising his employees' dedication to the animals.

"It's a bunch of silly nonsense," Cuneo said in a phone interview. "If you want to have somebody come and inspect them, I'd be happy to because everything is clean and pretty. ... When you've got an outfit like PETA that has absolutely no reluctance to lie – they thrive on it – it hurts a lot of people. It hurts people that are devoted to the animals."

Hawthorn has about 65 tigers, including about a dozen at the Richmond facility, Cuneo said. The company also owns other animals, including bison, elk, deer and zebras.

Ramos hasn't been at the Richmond facility since December, Cuneo said. He had been working shows in Florida.

While USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said he cannot comment on a particular case, complaints usually trigger a focused inspection. The department does not have a set policy on when those inspections have to happen, but the inspections always are unannounced.

The USDA filed a complaint against Hawthorn Corp. in April 2003 for 47 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

In a May 2004 settlement, Cuneo admitted to 19 of the violations and agreed to find new homes for 16 animals, who had been exposed to a human strain of tuberculosis. He also paid a $200,000 fine.
Of Hawthorn's last nine inspections going back to July 2010, the company was cited twice, once in August 2012 for failing to have appropriate barriers to prevent the public from coming in direct contact with the tigers and in June 2011 for failing to have the proper veterinarian form and failing to document the diet of the animals.

It also was the target of a 2007 lawsuit, in which an Iowa man said he was mauled by a tiger in July 2005 at the facility. The case was dismissed in 2010.

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