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Aftermath of Dunda Beating : Elephant Care and Staff Has Changed at S.D. Park

July 17, 1989|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A year after the beating of Dunda the elephant erupted into a public controversy, the elephant staff at the San Diego Wild Animal Park has been decimated, largely by voluntary transfers, forcing major changes in the management of elephants at the park.

Park officials have temporarily canceled the popular elephant shows and rides due to the lack of adequately trained staff, and have put on hold several other aspects of the elephant program, including Dunda's participation in the breeding project, which was the stated reason for her transfer from the San Diego Zoo to the park last year.

Instead, park officials are concentrating on rebuilding the elephant staff with experienced keepers.

Requested Transfers

Two of the five keepers who participated in the beating requested transfers to the construction and maintenance staff after their houses were vandalized by animal rights activists last year, said Tom Hanscom, a spokesman for the park. Some keepers who were not involved in the beating have quit for other reasons, according to sources at the park, who also said that turnover among keepers is high. One highly experienced keeper left because of illness.

Alan Roocroft, the keeper in charge of the Dunda disciplinary sessions, remains in his position as head of the elephant staff, but sources say he may take another position within the Zoological Society.

"We've had to back off on certain activities," Hanscom said. "We feed and bathe and monitor and take care of feet--the essential activities."

The situation is the result of a tumultuous year during which elephant keepers at the zoo became embroiled in a bitter dispute with their colleagues at the park, the zoo's sister institution, over the handling of Dunda.

The controversy first became public in May, 1988, when keepers at the zoo, contacted by The Times, confirmed reports that they had complained to zoo officials about the treatment of Dunda.

Dunda had been transferred to the park in February, 1988, from the zoo, where she had spent most of her life. The zookeepers, Steve Friedlund and Lisa Landres, asserted that insufficient preparation was made for the transfer and that keepers at the park unnecessarily and brutally beat the elephant.

'Home-Run Swings'

Subsequent investigations showed that Dunda was chained by all four legs, pulled to the ground, and beaten in several sessions over two days by five keepers using ax handles. One of the keepers described the blows as "home-run swings."

The San Diego Humane Society found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone under animal cruelty laws, but the U. S. Department of Agriculture admonished the park for exceeding disciplinary measures acceptable under federal regulations.

Nationally, a committee of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has drawn up the nation's first guidelines for the handling of captive elephants in response to the controversy sparked by the Dunda incident. The association's executive board is expected to vote on the guidelines next month.

In Sacramento, the Senate has approved legislation banning elephant abuse. The bill is pending in the Assembly.

As for Dunda, the wounds on her head have healed, but she has had a rough time with her new family. As the newest member of the African elephant herd at the park, the skittish 19-year-old has been roughed up and pushed around a number of times, especially at the beginning, by Peaches, the herd's huge matriarch, according to Hanscom, the park spokesman.

Things are better now, he said, but Dunda "finds herself still toward the bottom" of the pecking order in the herd of eight female African elephants. She has, however, found a friend in another young elephant.

No Further Discipline

There have been no further disciplinary sessions involving chaining and beating for Dunda or any of the other elephants, Hanscom said.

Throughout the controversy, Friedlund and Landres, the San Diego Zoo handlers who first complained about the beating, have hung on to their jobs. But now, as the issue fades, they say they have been forced to hire lawyers to defend themselves against a campaign of harassment by zoo officials. A series of formal disciplinary actions has been brought against them. Landres faces a charge that an anonymous visitor complained of seeing her smoking a cigarette in violation of zoo policy.

Friedlund and Landres, each of whom has worked for the Zoological Society for more than a decade, say it is clear officials of the society, which operates the zoo and the park, want to get rid of them in retaliation for publicly embarrassing the institutions.

"They are not being harassed and we cannot discuss employee relations," said Georgeanne Irvine, public relations manager for the zoo. "It's confidential."

Zoological Society officials, including Douglas Myers, the executive director, have staunchly backed the actions of the keepers at the park throughout the controversy.

Stripped of Responsibility

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