One day after a 48-year-old Asian elephant died at the Los Angeles Zoo, about two dozen animal rights activists protested there Sunday and called upon officials to close the elephant exhibit and move two remaining pachyderms to an animal sanctuary.
Gita was found in a prone position Saturday morning and is believed to have died after toxins from her muscles flooded her system and caused vascular distress. A necropsy is being performed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in San Bernardino, but results will not be available for several days.
"Do not let Gita's death be in vain," said Catherine Doyle of the Los Angeles Alliance for Elephants. "Why she collapsed we don't know.... What we do know is that Gita unnecessarily suffered throughout her life at the Los Angeles Zoo because of the inadequate conditions for elephants here."
Gita, who had lived at the zoo since 1959, struggled with foot bone disease and arthritis and underwent surgery in September. At a protest last fall, Doyle said the animal had a terminal condition and would soon die. A zoo vet examined her on Friday and gave her a good report.
A zoo official said Sunday that Gita's death was a "devastating loss" but defended how keepers and veterinarians treat the elephants.
"Our elephants receive the best care possible, just like all our animals," said zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs. "Gita received excellent care right up until the time of her death."
Jacobs said the average lifespan of an Asian elephant in a zoo is 42 years. Activists said they live until 65 or 70 in their natural habitats.
The last death of an elephant at the zoo was in 2004, when a female African elephant named Tara died of heart failure at 44.
This spring, the Los Angeles City Council approved the construction of a $39-million, 3.5-acre exhibit that will house the two surviving elephants, a 45-year-old African female named Ruby and a 21-year-old Asian bull named Billy.
But activists said Sunday that Gita's death showed that elephants don't belong in zoos. They said they had been warning the zoo for years that Gita was going to die if kept in a place with hard flooring and insufficient space to exercise.
"This is that tragic day that could have been avoided had Gita been sent to the natural habitat of a sanctuary away from the concrete cramped quarters at the L.A. Zoo," said Bill Dyer of In Defense of Animals.
The activists began gathering outside the main entrance about 11:30 a.m., telling patrons about Gita's death and urging them to spend their money elsewhere. Some called the zoo a "death camp" and blamed the zoo for "killing Gita."
Several demonstrators held cardboard headstones with the names of elephants they said had died at the zoo. One waved a placard that said, "Wanna See an Elephant? Go to Asia."
When zoo visitor Lashala Le Blanc saw that sign, she shook her head.
"We can't afford to go to Asia or Africa to see elephants," said Le Blanc, an L.A. resident who had brought her 7-year-old daughter and infant son to the zoo. "We have a zoo right here in L.A. And I'm pretty sure they aren't doing anything wrong."
Before entering the zoo, Rick Sprague and his two daughters stopped to listen to the demonstrations. Sprague, who lives in Simi Valley, said he had been following the controversy over whether the city should build a new exhibit or send the elephants to a sanctuary.
"What do you think?" Sprague asked his eldest daughter, 8-year-old Sydney, as they stood in front of a line of demonstrators.
"If they really did love the elephants, they would give them more space," she said to her father. "They are big animals."