A Trainer's Tale

A 2003 saga does not bode well for the Reid Park elephants

When Ray Ryan decamped back to Illinois, little did he know that three elephants he'd tended at the San Diego Zoo would be following him there.

Or that their appearance would bode catastrophe.

Elephant advocates were already outraged that the animals had been shipped from balmy California, where they had lived for years, to the frigid Midwest. The animals arrived at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo in 2003; by early 2005, only one remained alive—and Ryan was not optimistic about her chances.

"She's lost all of her family, and I think she'll quickly die of grief," he told The Washington Post at the time. "When all three were moved to Chicago, I said then they wouldn't last two years. And already, two of them are dead."

Indeed, in the spring of 2005, the third elephant perished while en route to yet another zoo, in Utah.

The Lincoln Park Zoo blamed the deaths on old age and a virulent lung disease. But to critics such as Ryan, the real culprit is the zoo industry itself, which shuttles captive animals around like merchandise, disrupting their social patterns, their familiar haunts and their lives.

Today, the former elephant trainer says the plans to move a 44-year Asian pachyderm named Connie from Tucson's Reid Park Zoo to his old stomping grounds in San Diego—thereby separating her from Shaba, her companion elephant for decades—rings disturbingly familiar.

"Those animals have been together for 30 years," Ryan says. "I guarantee to you that one or both of them will be dead within a year. They'll just die from stress and grief."

He's certainly no stranger to the zoo industry's uglier side. Ryan's tenure at San Diego ended just as a scandal erupted there in 1988 over the brutal beating of a chained elephant. He was called to testify during state Senate committee hearings that followed.

After leaving California, he returned to his native Illinois—and the African elephants he had trained soon followed.

Ironically, he says, the move was to make room in San Diego for a new herd of elephants taken from the wilds of Swaziland—several of which are now slated to replace Connie at Reid Park.

For Ryan, seeing his elephants in Chicago was painful. "I was on every single TV station in Chicago, and they were dying, one by one," he says.

Many regarded the deaths as a bellwether. The Lincoln Park Zoo has not replaced the elephants, though a spokeswoman says that could change. Zoos in other cities, including San Francisco and Detroit, are closing their elephant exhibits, which experts view as far too small and grossly insufficient for such complex, widely roaming animals.

Ron Kagan, executive director of the Detroit Zoo, emphasized that point to a reporter in 2004. "It's becoming clear," he said, "that the disparity between what elephants need and what they get in captivity is quite significant."

Which brings us to Tucson, where a $9.7 million investment, roughly half of it from taxpayers, will expand the current elephant habitat to a still-measly three acres, and result in the separation of Connie and Shaba.

There are plenty of disturbing parallels with Chicago. Prior to the Lincoln Park deaths, for instance, activists had urged the zoo to send those elephants to a highly respected Tennessee sanctuary. Zoo officials refused. In Tucson, advocates have also repeatedly urged Reid Park to send Connie and Shaba to a sanctuary. Those requests have likewise been dismissed.

"They're too proud to send them to the sanctuaries," Ryan says, "because that would be admitting that the sanctuaries are better."

Indeed, Lincoln Park would not budge. "And just before there was going to be a city council hearing to see if we could block them from transferring the last elephant to Utah," he says, "they snuck her out the back door in the middle of the night."

Ryan predicts that the same will occur in Tucson to avoid a public witnessing of Connie's departure. "They try to get this stuff done before there can be a decision to block it, and they're going to do it at night," he says. "Then everybody will wake up the next morning, and the elephant will already be gone. And what are you going to do after that? Because by then, she'll already be going into quarantine in San Diego by herself."

Driving this upheaval is the fact that Connie is an Asian elephant, and Shaba is African. One of the standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—which accredits Reid Park and other American zoos—maintains that Asian and African elephants should be housed separately.

This standard, never before observed at Reid Park, has recently been hoisted to great importance by zoo officials. Ergo, Connie will be dispatched to San Diego.

Meanwhile, Ryan believes the San Diego Zoo has plans to breed as many African elephants as possible, and ship them throughout the country. As a result, he says, zoos with old or dying animals such as Connie will be looking to make room by clearing them out.

Jeff Andrews is the associate curator of mammals at San Diego's zoo, and purportedly the driving force behind Connie's departure. On Nov. 22, he arrived in Tucson to address a City Council study session at which local residents were not allowed to speak—and which ended in a unanimous council endorsement of the move.

However, when contacted by the Tucson Weekly, the San Diego Zoo refused to make Andrews available for an interview.

Back in Tucson, Susan Basford, administrator of the Reid Park Zoo, says she expects Connie to be transferred to San Diego when the expansion of the elephant exhibit here is complete. That could mean late January or early February. She doesn't rule out beginning Connie's journey in the wee hours, citing traffic as the big concern. And, yes, possible protests are a thought. "What we want to do," Basford says, "is keep the situation as calm and safe as possible."

But it's unlikely that many Tucson residents will soon forget Connie. Or that Connie will quickly forget Shaba and her home here.

Just ask Ray Ryan. He recalls that he hadn't seen his "girls" from the San Diego Zoo for eight years, until they were moved to Chicago. So he ventured to Lincoln Park for a melancholy visit. "And when I called out their names," he says, "they almost climbed over the moat to come and see me."

Then Ray Ryan falls silent.