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Activists Urge Zoo to Release Ailing Elephant to Sanctuary

October 06, 2005|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

Armed with medical records and placards -- one of which proclaimed "L.A. Zoo Is Killing Their Elephants" -- eight activists stood outside the entrance to the Los Angeles Zoo on Wednesday, charging that it is no place for elephants.

The activists called a news conference to publicize the plight of Gita, a 47-year-old female Asian elephant who has lived with arthritis for 20 years and has been plagued by a severe foot infection this year.

"Gita is suffering from a terminal condition," said Catherine Doyle, who requested and obtained the records and predicted that the elephant would not live to 50. She attributed that prognosis to at least two veterinarians with longtime zoo experience who looked at the records. One also observed Gita recently.

"Because of the seriousness of her condition," Doyle said, "we're asking the L.A. Zoo to release her to a more spacious environment like a sanctuary where she can walk on grass instead of concrete."

Wednesday's event was the latest move in the increasingly prickly conflict between animal activists and the Los Angeles Zoo over the future of elephants at the Griffith Park facility.

Leah Greer, the zoo's senior clinical veterinarian who has been treating Gita, confirmed that a "soft spot" found on the elephant's foot in March had become an obvious bacterial infection in the bone by May. When the infection did not respond to aggressive treatment, including antibiotics, Greer said she performed surgery 10 days ago to remove the infection by amputating two-thirds of a "non-weight-bearing toe" on the elephant's left front foot.

"She's doing fabulously," said Greer, adding that Gita is getting round-the-clock postoperative care. "You can't take her to a sanctuary," the veterinarian said. "She wouldn't get this level of care."

Although Greer said she couldn't guarantee that Gita would live to 70 -- the average age for female Asian elephants in captivity in North America is 36, according to zoo officials -- she scoffed at the notion that Gita was certain to die in the next few years, even though she considers her an elderly elephant. "I don't have a crystal ball," she said. "Maybe the activists do."

Doyle and other activists disagree with the assumption that 36 is elderly for an elephant. "If you look at a preserve -- which is least affected by man -- they have elephants living in their 60s," Doyle said.

Both sides have argued the pros and cons of elephants in zoos for more than a year, but the stakes are higher now that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has commissioned a report on whether the zoo should continue with its plans for a new elephant exhibit or even keep its existing one. Several zoos around the country have decided not to continue exhibiting elephants.

"I've never criticized the keeper care or the veterinary care," Doyle said. "I've criticized the management and the conditions in which they're kept."

Doyle said the planned exhibit would still not be sufficient for the needs of elephants, which roam for miles in the wild. "Elephants will continue to suffer from arthritis, from foot and bone conditions, and from [compulsive] behavior -- bobbing and swaying," she said.

The activists say that the elephants have spent too much time standing on surfaces that are too hard. Zoo officials counter that the elephants have always had, at the least, concrete and sand, and they argue that sand is comfortable. At the mayor's request, loam was recently put down.

The zoo declined to make Gita available for a viewing in her off-exhibit quarters. She and Ruby, a female African elephant, are both off-exhibit while construction begins on a new elephant exhibit.

Only the zoo's male Asian elephant, Billy, is on public view.

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