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San Francisco Zoo Embroiled in Controversy

Trade group threatens to pull its accreditation over how a decision was reached to send two remaining elephants to a wild animal sanctuary.

September 13, 2004|Robert Hollis | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — As this city's zoo prepares to send its last two elephants into retirement at a California wild animal sanctuary, a trade group that represents North American zoos and theme parks is threatening to pull the zoo's accreditation.

Shortly after zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo decided in June to send the two pachyderms to the sanctuary in the Sierra foothills, the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. said that it "fundamentally disagreed" with how the decision was made and that it would "vigorously enforce our professional ethics and accreditation standards."

In a statement sent to San Francisco officials in June, association Executive Director Sydney Butler said Mollinedo's decision raised "serious ethical and accreditation concerns" because the zoo director ordered the elephants moved without allowing the association's "species survival plan" committee to review the decision and perhaps order city officials to send the animals to another accredited zoo or animal park.

If the San Francisco Zoo loses its accreditation, it would be barred from sending animals to or receiving them from other accredited zoos across the country, said Nancy Chan, a zoo spokeswoman.

Butler suggested in his statement that political pressure from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, supported by animal rights activists, might have prevented Mollinedo from making an "independent" decision regarding the elephants.

Mollinedo, former head of the Los Angeles Zoo, and his predecessors at the San Francisco Zoo have been strongly criticized for years by animal rights activists for keeping elephants in a small, antiquated enclosure.

The controversy intensified after the zoo lost two of its elephants earlier this year, one dying unexpectedly and the other being euthanized because of severe health problems.

Chan in effect agreed with the zoo association's conclusion, saying that Mollinedo decided to send the remaining elephants to a sanctuary because of pressure to do so from elected city officials. "We had to do what the community wanted," she said.

Later this month, at a regular zoo association meeting in New Orleans, Mollinedo will try to head off any further moves to disaccredit the zoo, Chan said. Mollinedo could not be reached for comment.

The two surviving pachyderms at the San Francisco Zoo are expected to be moved this month to the 2,300-acre Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in Calaveras County.

When Tinkerbelle, an Asian elephant, and Lulu, an African, both 38, are trucked from San Francisco, it will mean the end of a relationship with elephants that stretches back to the zoo's founding in 1929.

Neither the sanctuary in California nor another in Tennessee that has accepted a number of zoo elephants is a member of the zoo association, which represents 213 zoos, aquariums, animal parks and theme parks in North America, Bermuda and Hong Kong.

Many animal rights organizations and activists see the association as part of a problem affecting elephants in U.S. zoos and animal parks. The association's standard for elephant enclosures allows zoos to keep Earth's largest land mammals -- some of whom can roam up to 50 miles a day -- in spaces of less than an acre.

Deniz Bolbol, a member of In Defense of Animals in Mill Valley, Calif., said the association's own statistics show how badly elephants fare in the confined spaces at most zoos.

"The vast majority of elephants in AZA-accredited zoos die from captivity-induced health problems, including foot and joint problems, arthritis and so on," she said.

On average, elephants live about 34 years in accredited zoos, she said, citing figures from the association's annual conference in 2003. Their life span in the wild is 50 to 60 years, she said.

Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn., said figures to be released this month show that the average age at death of zoo elephants in the U.S. has risen to 36.

Ballentine said that Mollinedo's decision would "be a topic of conversation" for the association's committee on elephants. She said the panel, composed of zoo and animal entertainment industry officials, could revoke the zoo's accreditation.

A similar situation occurred in July when Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, under public pressure, ordered the return of Ruby, a 43-year-old African elephant, from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee to the Los Angeles Zoo. The order ran counter to the zoo association's recommendations to keep Ruby at Knoxville.

Los Angeles Zoo General Manager John Lewis said the reason for sending Ruby to Knoxville was to incorporate her into an existing herd of African pachyderms. That didn't happen, he said. Instead, Knoxville officials said, Ruby was kept apart from the other African elephants for 14 months.

Officials declined to answer questions about the status of the Los Angeles Zoo's accreditation.

The closure of the San Francisco elephant exhibit comes at a time of an unprecedented transfer of the animals to sanctuaries from public and private zoos. In all, at least a dozen Asian and African pachyderms are to be moved in the next few months to the nation's largest sanctuaries: the one in California and the 2,700-acre facility in Hohenwald, Tenn.

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