The director of the Los Angeles Zoo told the Zoo Commission on Tuesday that he was conducting a full investigation into Gita the elephant's recent death, which animal rights activists call premature and blame on mistreatment.
Members of the group In Defense of Animals protested outside the commission meeting and demanded that federal officials launch an independent investigation.
Director John Lewis and other zoo staff have said that, though Gita always stood, keepers found the Asian female about 5 a.m. June 10 sitting with her back legs tucked under her and her front legs outstretched -- a perilous position for such a heavy animal -- and tried to get her to stand until she died at 9:40 a.m. They have said they believe she died because toxins from her muscles flooded her system and put her into vascular distress.
But two anonymous sources have told activists that Gita was found sitting at least five hours before zoo workers tried to help her stand, said Bill Dyer, regional director of In Defense of Animals.
Gita, who was 48, suffered from years of foot bone disease and arthritis. But zoo officials said that after she had surgery in September, she appeared to be recovering.
At the commission meeting, Lewis declined to comment on the activists' specific allegation, but said of their remarks in general: "They don't know what they're talking about. They're making stuff up because they have a national agenda."
Activists have long protested the zoo's plan to expand its elephant exhibit from a little more than half an acre to 3 1/2 acres. The City Council approved the $39-million new exhibit in April, and an oversight committee voted last month to pay for some initial construction work.
Animal rights activists say the zoo's two remaining elephants, Billy, a 21-year-old Asian bull, and Ruby, a 45-year-old African female, belong not in a bigger space in a zoo but in an elephant sanctuary, where they can roam freely across thousands of acres.
At Tuesday's meeting, activists said Gita died early because of her life in captivity. They said an elephant can live up to 70 years in the wild.
Gita's body has been sent to a San Bernardino laboratory run by UC Davis for an independent necropsy.
Tests are expected to take weeks to complete, but officials say an interim report revealed nothing that contradicts their account.
After listening to protesters condemn the planned exhibit, zoo Commissioner Shelby Kaplan Sloan suggested that the facility try to learn from elephant sanctuaries. She proposed creating a subcommittee to research and learn from such preserves. "It behooves us to put some effort into this and try to educate ourselves," she said.
Before the meeting, an airplane hired by activists flew over the zoo, towing a banner that read: "LA Zoo: Free Ruby & Billy!"
The plane scared at least one animal at the zoo, Lewis said.
Zoo officials have in the past pushed the city to declare the zoo a "no-flight zone," but commissioners said the proposal has lost momentum.