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Help Delayed for Elephant in Distress

The L.A. Zoo now says an employee saw Gita seated on her haunches the day before the pachyderm died, but the report wasn't pursued.

July 01, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Zoo officials acknowledged Friday that an employee noticed that a beloved elephant was in possible distress the evening before she died but didn't take immediate action to help.

Gita, the zoo's female Asian elephant, was seen by a staff member on the evening of June 9 seated on her haunches, generally a sign of distress. But medical personnel weren't immediately told, and zoo staff didn't begin tending to the elephant until eight hours later, about 5 a.m. June 10, said zoo Director John Lewis.

"The people who got the report didn't follow procedures to pursue it," Lewis said.

"There's a whole series of procedures about who to notify after hours when something like this happens. The only thing we know for sure is we could have responded quicker if we had known."

The timeline, contained in the zoo's internal investigation, provides a new twist in the debate about Gita's death.

For weeks, animal rights activists have criticized the zoo for being too slow in treating Gita. But until now, zoo officials have maintained that they came to Gita's aid as soon as they realized she was ill.

"I'm glad they've admitted the truth after lying to the public so long about this," said Bill Dyer, Southern California director of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals. "It's tragic that she was left alone.... I can't imagine the psychological and physical suffering she was going through."

Zoo officials stressed that it remained unclear whether Gita would have survived had she received care earlier. They said they did not know why Gita, who suffered from arthritis, went into the down position. The elephant, who turned 48 this month, had lived at the zoo since 1959.

Lewis said the person who reported seeing Gita down informed another employee about the situation, and it was that second employee who failed to follow procedure. He would not say whether disciplinary action was taken against either worker.

Hours later, two keepers found Gita about in the outdoor part of her off-exhibit enclosure, sitting dog-style, with her back legs tucked under her and her front legs outstretched -- a perilous position for the circulatory system of an 8,000-pound animal, elephant experts said.

A zoo veterinarian, who had determined that Gita was completely recovered from a severe foot ailment, said it was a mystery why she was prone.

In the hours after keepers discovered her, staff members made several attempts to get her to stand. Gita died at 9:40 a.m. after toxins from her muscles flooded her system and caused vascular distress.

The most placid of the zoo's three pachyderms, Gita often was walked around the zoo before opening hours, captivating the staff and startling the monkeys. Bedeviled by years of foot bone disease and arthritis -- as many captive elephants are -- Gita underwent state-of-the-art surgery in September and was declared by the zoo to be healed.

But she also had become a symbol for animal rights activists who argued that her crippling problems were the result of treading on concrete surfaces in the zoo for years, and that she would never completely recover. All the zoo's elephants now walk on soft dirt surfaces.

During public hearings and demonstrations in front of the zoo, many factions of the city -- activists, zoo staffers, City Council members, the mayor, the public and schoolchildren -- weighed in repeatedly over the last few years on what should happen to Gita and the other elephants.

The time lag has been reported to the California Animal Health and Safety lab where Gita's necropsy is being performed, Lewis said. The lag has also been reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is investigating the elephant's death after receiving a complaint from In Defense of Animals.

Results of the necropsy are expected in the next several weeks.

Animal rights activists want the zoo's remaining elephants sent to a wildlife sanctuary where they would have more room to roam.

"Why in the world would you have people there at night and when they see something like that, they don't do anything about it? Where's the training here?" said Les Schobert, a former curator at the L.A. Zoo and now a consultant on elephant care to animal rights groups.

"The fact that some employee saw her down and called someone and they did nothing -- that is the zoo's responsibility. That is nothing but negligence on the zoo's part."

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