BALM — Ned, the elephant that federal officials say was starved, is really just a picky eater, his former owner said.
Ever since animal trainer Lancelot Kollmann got Ned three years ago, the 21-year-old Asian elephant would eat some days and not others, Kollmann said. Even with various diets and medicine, including Pepto-Bismol, the pachyderm's condition fluctuated, he said.
But U.S. Agriculture Department officials don't believe Kollmann, sometimes known as Lance Ramos, was doing enough. Ned's new caregivers at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee say it's apparent he wasn't given the minerals and nutrition he needs.
He probably only got a fraction of the necessary 150 pounds of food a day, sanctuary owner Carol Buckley said.
So Ned is no longer Kollmann's. Authorities swarmed Kollmann's property Nov. 7, and an Agriculture Department official handed him confiscation papers. The next day, Ned was being hauled off to the sanctuary — only the second time that the department has confiscated an elephant.
Ned is underweight by about a ton, but Kollmann says he was monitoring Ned's diet to help him gain weight. The elephant suffered from colic, he said, and Kollmann's veterinarian, Thomas Schotman, agrees.
In January, an inspector noted that Ned was very thin. Schotman of Lake Wales responded with a letter saying that Ned has colic and shows signs of anorexia.
"Lance and I communicate often on Ned's progress," he wrote.
Schotman said this week that he's upset by the accusation that Kollmann starved Ned. Schotman, who has treated elephants since 1982, said numerous examinations and blood analysis failed to determine what makes Ned a picky eater.
"I don't have a clue about what it is because I can't look in his stomach," he said. "It's frustrating for me."
Ned was improving in recent months, Kollmann said. He fed Ned bales of hay, fresh-cut grass, carrots, cantaloupes and different types of feed, he said.
"I was very attached to this animal, and I think I could have gotten him to where he needs to be," he said.
But when she arrived unannounced in late October, inspector Carol Porter noted that Ned's condition had visibly worsened since January.
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Kollmann says he has a gift for training animals.
From zebras to lions, he trains exotic animals for shows. He exhibits some and sends others off with circuses, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He's a seventh-generation animal trainer. His grandfather was a lion tamer, and his father and uncles owned big cats.
But in 2000, Kollmann's father, Manuel Ramos, gave up his license to exhibit animals to avoid prosecution for violating the Animal Welfare Act. The problems started when his African elephant, Kenya, stomped Kollmann's aunt, Teresa Ramos-Caballero, to death.
Ramos turned over the business to Kollmann, who built a compound that now houses 15 tigers, two lions, a zebra and several horses. He received Ned as a gift about three years ago, when Ruskin elephant trainer William "Buckles" Woodcock retired.
In 2005, the Department gave Kollmann a license to exhibit — which it is now trying to take away. That means Kollmann could keep the rest of his animals but not show them.
If that happens, he'll probably have to find new homes for them, he said.
"How am I going to feed all those tigers and all the animals?" he asked. "I can't if I can't exhibit them."
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Kollmann has had previous run-ins with the Agriculture Department.
He's appealing a court ruling in a case brought by the agency concerning the treatment of two big cats, department spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said.
The department's claims that his lions' paws were in bad shape came about because he moved them from a dirt-floored cage to one with a concrete base, Kollmann said. The lions, Juliet and Ramos, were just adjusting to the ground, he said.
But because of previous issues, the department can show up for inspections more than once a year. Porter arrived unannounced in October after getting a tip from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that Ned was severely underweight.
PETA officials saw pictures of Ned performing in Maine, said RaeLeann Smith, a circus and government affairs specialist for the Agriculture Department. The pictures, which show a gaunt Ned in a circus ring, quickly circulated through the animal-rights community after an Oakland Zoo curator saw the pictures on an online photo-sharing site.
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Ned is slowly improving, Buckley said.
On Wednesday, he tentatively reached his trunk out to a caregiver's hand — a small step in building confidence, Buckley said. He's been eating and drinking fairly well and hasn't shown any signs of colic, she said.
The department also believes that Ned was starving. The Animal Welfare Act allows it to seize animals suffering from inadequate care.
But Kollmann's vet, Schotman, said he always saw Ned with access to pellets, hay and sometimes produce.
"I have no reason to believe he would deliberately starve the animal," he said.
But Buckley said it isn't always deliberate. Elephant owners often just don't know how to take care of the animals properly, she said.
"These people, they don't have a clue," she said. "And it's the animals that suffer."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.