Friday, January 21, 2005

Zoo may tell elephants farewell (It's about time!)

Another proof of how zoos just simply do not care about the well being of other animals, and that they are incapable of creating natural conditions.

Sad and senseless deaths.

Zoo may tell elephants farewell

Lincoln Park mulls future of program

By William Mullen and Jon Yates, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Alex Kellogg contributed to this report
Published January 20, 2005

Having lost two of its three elephants in the last three months, Lincoln Park Zoo on Wednesday said it would send the last one to another facility while its staff re-examines the future of its elephant program.

Wankie, 35, an African elephant who lost her two female companions, Tatima, 35, in October and Peaches, 55, on Monday, will move from Chicago as soon as an appropriate home can be found for her, zoo officials said.

The two deaths have put Lincoln Park at center stage in a nationwide controversy over whether northern zoos should keep elephants, which come from tropical and subtropical climates. Animal rights organizations campaigning to ban elephants from zoos in general have heaped criticism on Lincoln Park since Peaches' death.

Zoo industry officials, however, denied Wednesday that cold weather had anything to do with the Lincoln Park deaths and challenged the facts that animal rights activists have been proffering to support elimination of zoo elephant exhibits.

The passion generated on both sides of the issue is a measure of the almost universal attraction and regard humans hold for elephants--the largest of all land animals and among the most social and intelligent of all species.

They usually come out No. 1 on zoo surveys as the most popular animals in their collections. Conservation officials struggling to stop the slaughter of elephants in Africa and Asia regard them as probably the most important zoo "ambassadors" to educate the public about the plight of wild animals and disappearing wilderness.

Lincoln Park officials said it was easier to send Wankie to a different facility to join an established social group than it was to find two or three compatible elephants and bring them to Chicago to join her in the zoo's African Journey exhibit.

In coming weeks zoo staff members will consider finding a replacement group of elephants. They said the option of keeping no elephants at all would be discussed, though they consider that possibility remote.

PETA blames weather

The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Wednesday charged that cold weather conditions were directly responsible for the elephant deaths at Lincoln Park.

"The issue is that, because of cold climate, they are forced to live indoors under conditions in which elephants are deprived of adequate exercise and enrichment," said Nicole Meyer, who said she is PETA's "elephant specialist."

"We find that elephants kept in captivity in general are dying prematurely, decades short of expected life spans as a result of captivity-induced ailments such as arthritis and foot infection."

Wankie, Tatima and Peaches came to Lincoln Park in 2003 from San Diego Wild Animal Park, a move excoriated by some animal rights activists. Wankie and Tatima were entering into elephant old age at the time, and Peaches was the oldest African zoo elephant in the country.

"We said they undoubtedly will not prosper and probably there will be some loss of life," said Pat Derby, director of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a California group that operates three sanctuaries for captive wildlife. "Elephants can take some cold, but moving them from a climate like San Diego to a climate like Chicago is a horrible stress, and for old elephants, I think it's deadly."

Lincoln Park and other zoo industry officials say such charges are unfounded.

"The facts don't prove out what PETA and other activists are saying," said Bill Foster, director of the Birmingham (Alabama) Zoo and president of the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo industry trade organization.

Current studies on the median age of death for captive African elephants, he said, "is not statistically different" than what it is for elephants living in the wild, about 36 to 38 years.

Some zoos have decided to do away with elephant exhibits. Last year, the Detroit Zoo director announced he would shut down the zoo's elephant exhibit and send Winky and Wanda to a warmer, roomier sanctuary.

In San Francisco, animal welfare groups pressured zoo officials there to stop their elephant exhibit after one died last April.

Officials at the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden in Evansville, Ind., said they shut down the facility's elephant exhibit in 1999 after deciding it was better for the elephant, Bunny, to live in a Tennessee sanctuary.

Erik Beck, the zoo's curator of animals, said zoo officials thought the elephant needed companionship and that her exhibit space was outdated.

"Definitely what was correct 20 years ago ... even 10 years ago does not mean it's the right thing to do now," Beck said.

Elephants brought back

Yet other zoos, such as Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, are bringing elephants back after closing exhibits earlier, Foster said. And the Denver and Cleveland Zoos, are expanding elephant collections and facilities.

"Some of our most successful elephant programs have been in zoos in northern climates," Foster said, citing zoos in Cincinnati and Syracuse.

At the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, zoo workers and animal rights activists have expressed concern that the zoo's only elephant is depressed. Officials ultimately decided to keep her and embarked on a three-year, $500,000 improvement program, including construction of the world's first elephant treadmill for exercising in the coldest months.

"People have excellent points on both sides and nobody has true answers," said zoo curator Pat Lampi.

Despite the two recent deaths at Lincoln Park, Foster said, the Chicago zoo has been notable for its expertise in care of geriatric elephants.

Meyer of PETA said the deaths, coming in rapid succession, were proof enough of the zoo's inadequate care of the animals.

Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for Lincoln Park, said there is no link between Chicago's cold winters and the recent deaths. "You need to take each death separately," she said.

"Tatima had some kind of bacterial disease. We don't yet know if it was tuberculosis, but it had destroyed her body. That is a bacterial disease that she could have acquired 30 years ago. If she had been here, stayed in San Diego or gone elsewhere would not have mattered in terms of her death. Peaches was just old."

During the winter, the zoo's elephants have lived off-exhibit in a 4,000-square-foot area with a concrete floor. McGrath said the concrete is not ideal and that keepers are hoping to develop a flooring that is softer, yet durable enough that the elephants can't rip it up.

West suburban Brookfield Zoo has two extremely popular African female elephants and has never entertained the idea of doing away with its elephant exhibit, said zoo director Stuart Strahl.

"Elephants are probably the most enigmatic and charismatic animals we have," said Strahl, "standing as representatives for the endangered and threatened wild species and habitat worldwide.

"The role of the zoo in a modern society is one of conservation and education. Our philosophy is that people care about wildlife and nature when they have meaningful, direct experiences with wildlife."

North American zoos and aquariums attract 140 million visitors a year, which Strahl said represents an enormous opportunity to teach an increasingly urban population the importance of preserving wildlife and habitats. North American zoos have about 300 elephants total, half Asian, half African.

"People are drawn to them because of their size," said Strahl. "They are an animal everybody can relate to.

"We use that every day to convey our fundamental conservation and education messages to visitors at our zoo. Our elephant keepers every day give lectures and have informal chats with visitors about the animals, their plight in the wild, their social behavior and how we care for them."

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