Pachyderm Push

Should the Reid Park Zoo keep its elephants?

Mark Sanchez didn't expect to make any political statements on this warm February afternoon. He was just out for a trip to the Reid Park Zoo with his wife and kids.

But he nonetheless finds himself signing a petition urging the Tucson City Council to consider moving the zoo's elephants, Connie and Shaba, out of Tucson to a Tennessee sanctuary, where they would join a growing herd of elephants who are being transferred from zoos across the country.

Sanchez, a 25-year-old father of four who regularly brings his family to the zoo, says he thinks the elephants' current half-acre exhibit is just too small.

"I've always thought they needed more space to roam," says Sanchez.

But it was after hearing about how elephants in captivity frequently develop severe foot problems--and suffer premature death--that Sanchez decided to sign the petition.

"It's just the right thing to do," Sanchez says.

Susan Basford couldn't disagree more. As director of the Reid Park Zoo, Basford says the right thing to do is keep Connie and Shaba right here in Tucson, in an expanded three-acre exhibit.

"We have such a perfect place for elephants," says Basford. "Perfect climate, great keepers, two animals that are acclimated to each other, or bonded to each other and to their keepers. We have the approval to do it; why would we not?"

Nikia Fico, a UA law student spearheading the petition drive, offers several reasons why the Tucson City Council should change their minds about spending an estimated $8.5 million to enlarge the zoo's elephant enclosure and other facilities. Fico says she wouldn't describe herself as an animal-rights activist, though she has done some academic writing on animal rights as part of her legal studies.

"I've always been one of those people who takes in stray animals and tries to find them homes," says Fico. "I think we should be giving animals the respect they deserve and treating them compassionately and humanely."

The leader of the newly formed group Save Tucson Elephants, Fico is using all of her legal training to make the case that the elephants would be better off at The Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre facility in Hohenwald, Tenn., that has offered to take Connie and Shaba at no cost to the Reid Park Zoo.

Fico has spent the last few months watching Connie and Shaba, poring over the elephants' records and gathering signatures outside the zoo entrance. She says more than 4,000 people have already signed the petition calling on the council to transfer the elephants. It's an easy sell, she says, because zoo visitors "understand it's not humane to let an animal sit and die in an enclosure just so you can see it for five minutes."

Fico points to a growing body of evidence that zoos are bad for elephants. For starters, wild elephants walk as many as 50 miles a day. Without that exercise, elephants in captivity frequently develop foot problems, which can lead to more serious health problems, which in turn can lead to zoo officials euthanizing the animals.

Those problems are already evident in Connie, the zoo's 39-year-old Asian elephant, whose medical records show a history of foot troubles.

Basford concedes that Connie, like many elephants in captivity, has had foot problems in the past, but says her health has improved thanks to treatment by the zoo staff. She downplays the importance of walking to an elephant's health.

"If I was really hungry and needed to find food, I'm quite sure that I would walk as far as I possibly could to find it," says Basford. "But if I had food in front of me, and water, I'm not gonna do that. So yes, elephants can walk 30 to 50 miles a day; they don't choose to if they have what they need in front of them."

Current American Zoo and Aquarium Association regulations require 252 square meters of outdoor space for two elephants. Carol Buckley, who heads up The Elephant Sanctuary, says that's about 60,000 times smaller than the smallest known elephant home range.

Fico agrees that Connie's foot problems have improved over the last five years. But she points out that the zoo's medical records show that the problems haven't gone away.

"Her foot problems are not cured, and they're not going to be cured," Fico says. "There's no evidence of any zoo ever curing them. They're managing them, but they are going to get worse, and it will be something that kills her in the end. And the larger enclosure is not going to solve that problem."

Fico also expresses concern that Connie exhibits what elephant experts call the "stereotypic behavior" of compulsively swaying her head--something that elephants in the wild don't do. She says the movement puts stress on parts of the foot that don't normally bear such weight, contributing to the foot problems.

Basford, who recently put out a sign reassuring zoo visitors that Connie's head-swaying doesn't mean that she's crazy, says the activity is no cause for concern.

"Connie does swing her head; she does it when she's happy; she makes little chirping noises--we're interpreting her behavior--when she's contented, when she's out in the yard by herself," Basford says. "My own interpretation--and nobody really knows why they do it--is that it's a habit."

Fico says these captivity-induced disorders are so detrimental to elephants' health that they die, on average, at age 45, while elephants in the wild can live as long as 70 years.

Basford suggests that Fico is twisting the numbers. She says while elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild, on average, they live about as long as elephants in captivity.

But Fico points out that elephants in the wild meet premature ends, because they must contend with predators and poachers. Generally, animals in captivity that don't face such threats enjoy a longer life than those in the wild.

"It would be as if I wanted to determine what the average human life expectancy was, and I decided to add in everybody who died in car crashes," Fico says.

Basford says she's worried that sending the elephants to a sanctuary could mean separating them so they would be placed with their respective species. (Connie is an Asian elephant; Shaba is an African elephant.)

"To me, that's an issue," Basford says. "These animals, if at all possible, should stay together."

Although she doesn't think sending the elephants away would affect zoo attendance, Basford says a new exhibit, as part of the proposed seven-acre expansion, would probably boost the number of visitors who come to the zoo.

Basford says there's a good reason to keep the elephants: the educational value of allowing people to see the animals up close.

"You don't get the same impact as a little child, or even as an adult, standing next to an elephant as you do watching it on TV," Basford says. "To me, people aren't going to make the same commitment to the environment or to the species of animals if all they do is see them on TV or in a movie, as they will if they see it in person."

Fico scoffs at that notion.

"We've had elephants in zoos for (more than) 200 years, and we are currently destroying their habitat faster than we ever have before," Fico says. "The Asian species is vanishing right before our eyes. People don't go to the zoo and say, 'I'm going go donate $100 for conservation in Asia or Africa.' It just doesn't work that way."

The debate over keeping elephants in zoos isn't unique to Tucson. Across the country, zoos are wrestling with the question of whether to keep their elephants.

"As a variety of zoos are looking at fundraising for better or new exhibits, critics of zoos and critics of keeping elephants in zoos have sort of gotten a lot of play," Basford says.

In January, officials at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., were forced to euthanize its 40-year-old elephant, Toni, just five days after they had said Toni had no significant health problems.

At least eight zoos have sent elephants to sanctuaries in the last decade. Officials at the Detroit Zoo decided to transfer the animals because they no longer felt their institution could provide the necessary social and physical environment for elephants, which they determined to be 10 to 20 acres in a warm climate with several other animals.

"Previously, we hoped that the foot care, along with incremental exhibit expansion and enhancement, might be enough," Detroit Zoo officials stated on the zoo's Web site. "Now we understand how much more is needed to be able to properly care for Asian elephants in captivity."

The transfer came after the Detroit Zoo spent more than three years working on a plan to expand its elephant enclosure.

Earlier this month, the Bronx Zoo canceled plans to expand its two-acre elephant exhibit, announcing instead that the animals--while currently healthy--will not be replaced after they die, and the exhibit will be phased out.

In response to the campaign to persuade zoos to give up their elephants, the American Aquarium and Zoo Association has launched its own public-relations campaign. In a January press release, AZA officials boasted that 40 zoos across the country were planning on expanding their exhibits within the next five years. Although the Tucson City Council has only tentatively approved expanding the elephant exhibit, without a firm financial commitment, the list included Tucson, with the AZA stating that "city managers ... approved an estimated $8.5 million expansion of the Reid Park Zoo's existing elephant facilities."

The disagreement between AZA officials and sanctuary supporters has escalated in recent months. The AZA has not reviewed the Tennessee facility, nor has it reviewed a similar sanctuary in California, but it states that there is a certification process available for those facilities. The AZA's Web site claims that elephant sanctuaries are "essentially large zoos."

The Elephant Sanctuary's own Web site, however, counters that the credentials of sanctuary professionals meet or exceed AZA requirements, and that sanctuaries do not breed elephants "to produce young that will, in turn, face a lifetime in captivity with no hope of return to the wild."

Much of the pressure to expand Tucson's zoo comes from the AZA, whose standards call for institutions to "strive to hold no less than three female elephants wherever possible. All new exhibits and major renovations must have the capacity to hold three or more female elephants."

"We want to meet the standards," Basford says.

One way that could happen is by breeding Shaba, who, at age 27, is nearing the end of her recommended reproductive age. Because she is not related to any other zoo elephant, the AZA recommends that Shaba have at least two babies as soon as possible, to add to the captive gene pool.

Although she's excited by the possibility that a baby elephant would boost attendance, Basford cautions that the breeding process might not be successful.

"I want to be really clear that we're not promising anybody baby elephants," says Basford. "We don't promise that. We certainly want to try artificial insemination. It may or may not work. It's not a guarantee."

Breeding efforts in zoos have been a challenge. Elephant Sanctuary officials note on their Web site that between 1998 and 2003, 11 African elephants were born in AZA zoos, but only three survived.

The fate of Connie and Shaba ultimately lies in the hands of the Tucson City Council. When the question of expanding the exhibit first came up last year, council members were deluged with letters of support for keeping the elephants.

City Manager Mike Hein says the council will take up the question of funding the zoo expansion in April, when city staff will present funding options. Assistant City Manager Liz Miller says options include selling bonds that would be repaid through a higher zoo admission fee and private donations. An ongoing fundraising effort by the Tucson Zoological Society, a nonprofit organization that supports the Reid Park Zoo's activities, had raised only $11,857 as of Jan. 5, while the city of Tucson had gotten $512, according to a memo from city parks director Fred Gray.

Some City Council members haven't yet decided what to do with Connie and Shaba. Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal and Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich say they are still weighing all options. Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott says she's torn between the expense of expanding the zoo and the potential trauma of moving the elephants across the country, where they might be separated. Mayor Bob Walkup still supports keeping the elephants, according to aide Andrew Greenhill; Ward 2 Councilwoman Carol West says she wants to keep Connie and Shaba so Tucson's children can continue to see them in the zoo; and Ward 6 Councilwoman Nina Trasoff wants to keep the elephants, but says if the city can't come up with funding for the expansion, she wants any transfer handled under the auspices of the AZA. Councilman Jose Ibarra didn't return several phone calls.

Fico hopes her petition effort will persuade the council to transfer them to the Tennessee sanctuary. She says she's not against spending money to expand the zoo, but thinks the city should focus on creating better exhibits for some of the other animals, such as the gibbons and otters.

"I'm not opposed to making this the best little zoo it can be," Fico says. "I just don't believe the expansion for the elephants is a good use of their money, because the elephants are still going to die at half their natural lifespan in this new enclosure."

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