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COLUMN ONE : Elephants Pose Giant Dangers : Pachyderm attacks are on the rise, creating king-size problems for zoos and circuses. Some believe the intelligent mammals are rebelling against inhumane treatment.

October 11, 1994|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Two months after an 8,000-pound elephant at the Louisville Zoo tried to do a headstand on his chest, Troy Ramsey is willing to forgive the creature that left him without a spleen, two-thirds of his pancreas and the ability to earn a living.

But the 28-year-old machinist is suing zoo authorities and the pachyderm's owner and handler for allegedly losing control of Kenya, the female African elephant that attacked him on June 29.

Ramsey was visiting the zoo when Kenya wandered away from her barn and, with a snap of her trunk, picked him up and smashed him to the ground, then tried to gore him with her tusks.

"You can't keep an elephant pent up in chains and expect it to be right in the head," said Ramsey, who has been studying up on the animals ever since his injury. "Elephants are intelligent animals and, knowing they are not in their natural environment, don't want to be there. It must be a private hell for them."

Until recently, most elephant owners and managers dismissed such arguments as ill-informed, even anthropomorphic. Not any more. Elephant attacks are on the rise--prompting hand-wringing and soul-searching among officials at zoos and circuses across the nation over how to better manage these intelligent, powerful, moody and misunderstood land giants.

Since 1976, 21 people--most of them handlers and trainers in zoos and circuses--have been stomped, crushed or gored to death by elephants in the United States, according to a study conducted by the National Zoo in Washington. Eight of those fatalities occurred during the past five years.

An average year will see at least one of the 600 people who work with elephants in the United States killed by one or more of the 600 elephants in captivity. Statistically, that makes elephant handling the most dangerous profession in the nation--three times more hazardous than coal mining.

No one can say with certainty why elephants that have been docile for years can suddenly turn against their handlers. And elephant experts, who typically establish superiority over these creatures through discipline and a constant air of confidence, concede that they do not know what an elephant thinks or how to prevent them from hurting humans.

What they do know about elephants is that they are highly intelligent social animals that travel long distances in herds--a situation that exists nowhere in the nation for captive elephants and that no zoo or circus can afford to provide.

Facing bad publicity, soaring liability costs and increasing calls for better safeguards, the latest trend for handlers is to stay behind iron bars and gates, with minimal contact with the animals. But this hands-off strategy may exacerbate other problems, such as what to do when a captive elephant gives birth and then tries to kill its offspring.

Others are getting out of the high-maintenance, expensive elephant business altogether. No wonder. Federal laws banning importation of elephants have pushed the average cost of pachyderms, which are frequently traded among zoos, circuses and private owners, to $100,000. Liability insurance for an elephant runs about $25,000 a year--double the annual insurance for a 1994 Rolls Royce Corniche in Los Angeles County.

A zoo or circus without elephants? Some circus officials predict that only the largest five circuses will offer performing elephant acts in 10 years. Last month, the Mesker Park Zoo in Indiana dropped elephants from its $30-million renovation plan because the animals need more room and care than it can afford to provide.

"We are now asking ourselves: Can we continue to do this? Are we being fair to the species?" said Alan Roocroft, chief elephant handler at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, who dreams of one day establishing a mega-preserve where the climate would permit an unsheltered elephant habitat year-round.

"The way that elephants are being kept in captivity in a lot of cases is contrary to how they should be kept for their well-being," Roocroft said. "If they are not allowed to move adequate distances during the day, for example, they are not fulfilling their requirements as an organism."

The results of confinement and deprivation, he added, can include "abnormal behavior, physical problems, aggression."

Some animal-welfare activists say they believe that the nation's aging population of elephants, who reproduce only rarely in captivity, are actively rebelling against a life of torment at the hands of their taskmasters.

"Some elephant handlers say they don't understand why elephants do these violent things, but I don't buy it," said Pat Derby, director of a California group called the Performing Animal Welfare Society. "Elephants are fighting back against the chains, restricted movement, harsh treatment and boredom.

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