Pa. zoo sends elephants packing

Facility short of space

Baltimore to get 3

November 05, 2006|By New York Times News Service

PHILADELPHIA --When the Philadelphia Zoo, the nation's first, opened in 1874, its curators bought an elephant from a traveling circus and chained it to a tree, delighting children and adults who had never seen such an animal up close.

Over the ensuing 132 years, elephants have been a big part of the zoo's attraction. They have often been featured on advertising posters and commercials, and zoo administrators say visitors spend an average of five to eight minutes gazing at them in their rather small habitat.

This spring, though, the zoo's affair with elephants will end. Instead of expanding the space for the exhibit, the zoo's board of directors has decided to put the money elsewhere. The herd of four elephants will be divided between the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and an elephant sanctuary in central Tennessee.

The current thought among experts in the animal world, particularly the members of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, is that elephants need room to roam. Even with conscientious veterinarians and keepers, they say, quarter-acre habitats like the one in Philadelphia are not sufficient for the world's largest land mammal.

Zoos in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and New York have also decided to eliminate their elephant exhibits.

"In the mid-1990s, zoos started to become aware that they could not be all things to all people," said Mark Reed, the director of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., and the head of the zoo association's committee on elephants. "The Detroit people decided to give up their elephants, and I think that gave the PETA people a forum, and they made it into a controversy among zoo people, which it really wasn't.

"This is a flagship animal at any particular zoo," Reed said. "Denver is building a new facility; Albuquerque and San Diego are expanding. The Pittsburgh Zoo is purchasing land outside the city for an elephant area.

"When I was 3 1/2 and saw Rosie the elephant at the Portland, Ore., zoo, it had a huge impact on me," he continued, "which is why I am in the business today."

Dr. Andrew Baker, vice president for animal programs of the Philadelphia Zoo, said that instead of expanding the elephant habitat, the zoo decided to devote more space to its children's zoo and to its big cats and gorillas.

"We feel good about the level of care we've given the elephants over the years," Baker said, but it became clear "that we would need to expand the space we were devoting to them."

Protests

A group calling itself Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants had started a campaign to persuade the zoo to send its elephants to a sanctuary, claiming that the zoo was making them stand on hard surfaces, not letting them roam enough and allowing them to fight.

When the lone Asian elephant, Dulary, now 42, got into a fight with one of the three African elephants last year and the zoo put her in isolation, the group demanded to see her. When it was rebuffed, its members picketed and handed out pamphlets denouncing what it called the mistreatment of elephants in Philadelphia and at other zoos.

Baker said that his zoo's decision was purely financial and that the protests had no effect on it.

Carol Buckley, who runs the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, said she became interested in the cause when she saw a circus elephant being shocked and whipped. Buckley started a nonprofit corporation and in 1995 bought 2,700 acres about 85 miles southwest of Nashville for the sanctuary, which will include 23 female elephants when Dulary arrives in the spring.

Coming to Baltimore

"Our goal is to give elephants space and autonomy," said Buckley, who does not allow outsiders, including financial donors, to visit the refuge or have any contact with the elephants. A dozen staff members care for the animals, and an Internet "elecam" allows people to view the elephants.

"No human has an unalienable right to see an elephant in captivity," she said. "Humans want something from elephants. The expectation is there that they entertain, and that is not what elephants are meant to do."

The Maryland Zoo is taking the Philadelphia Zoo's other three elephants, Petal, 51; Kallie, 24; and Bette, 23. A $5 million project will expand the zoo's exhibit to five elephants, several acres and a half-mile walking trail.

The Baltimore zoo considered eliminating its elephant exhibit a few years ago, but when word got out, donations started pouring in, said Billie Grieb, the zoo's chief executive and president.

"A million dollars came in over the transom: pennies from schoolchildren on three-by-five cards, a $25,000 donation from a woman from out of state who said she was just moved by the situation," Grieb said. "The announcement about the new elephants has been met by jubilation. We have made a commitment to elephants here and have put that out there to the public."

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, there is a slim hope that elephants will eventually return to the zoo, since the board said it could not come up with proper financing at this point.

"I think we are always in a planning process, which now has us look at each animal," said Baker, who added that there was still land available for a larger elephant exhibit, even with the zoo's tight urban quarters. "Exactly what animals will be here over time may well change. Sometimes, like we said, it is a financial, not an aesthetic, decision."

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