Here are a few things you need to know about walking an elephant:
The pachyderm will set the pace. (Let's just say it's leisurely.)
She will be curious about you, unfurling her trunk in your direction for a sniff. (It's surprising how far a trunk can reach.)
She will want to eat along the way. (Bamboo was the snack of choice on a recent morning.)
Several times a week, Gita, the Los Angeles Zoo's 47-year-old female Asian elephant, is walked for a couple of hours before the zoo officially opens at 10 a.m. It is an exercise that has taken on more significance since her foot surgery last September. Indeed, a walk with Gita is weighted with symbolism.
Like a Hollywood star shopping Robertson Boulevard, she promenades on a recent morning with an entourage: two animal keepers, one curator, a photographer, a reporter. And, of course, her publicist. Along the route, high school students rushing to classes on the zoo grounds stop and snap Gita's picture with their cellphones. Spider monkeys chatter as they peer down through the mesh of their hilltop exhibits for a better look at the lumbering giant.
"She's a little princess," says Jennie McNary, the zoo's curator of mammals.
Gita is also the focus of an emotional and prolonged debate over whether she and her other L.A. pachyderm compatriots -- Ruby, an African female, and Billy, an Asian bull -- are best served by staying at the L.A. Zoo or being retired to a sanctuary. For months, animal rights activists have insisted the bone disease that has bedeviled Gita in her older years would lead to such acute lameness that she would end up having to be euthanized.
Zoo officials insist that Gita sailed through a radical state-of-the-art veterinary surgery and has emerged free of disease. In the meantime, the L.A. City Council voted to build a proposed $39-million, 3 1/2 -acre elephant exhibit.
Here's another thing you need to know about walking an elephant: Gita is huge. Big \o7and \f7tall. Her color is mottled brown and yellowy, typical of elephants native to India. Her skin is a sprawling grid of wrinkles. When the sun hits her, the ridge of dark hair on her back gleams red as if she's had a henna rinse. Her eyes are big and brown. And the edges of her flat, pancake-like ears are slightly tattered, a result of aging, according to McNary.
Gita's trunk feels thick and nubby, and when she twists it to reveal its opening, she blows a fan's worth of warm air across a visitor's face.
Animal keeper Don Aguirre leads the morning walk, tossing monkey biscuits to Gita as an entreaty to speed up and leave the bamboo behind. Jeff Briscoe, a longtime elephant keeper, follows in a small zoo truck.
Gita's left forefoot is swathed in duct tape to protect the bandage covering a wound where veterinary surgeons removed part of the bone to treat her osteomyelitis.
The elephant only recently resumed her walks, but her pace is steady and she shows no signs of pain or discomfort.
"Gita, move up!" Aguirre says sternly in the hope of discouraging dilly-dallying. As per zoo protocol, Aguirre carries -- but never brandishes -- an ankus, a wooden stick with a hook on the end. "We don't even use the actual hook part," he says, adding that the tool is generally used just to guide. On this morning, he never uses it.
Back in her barn, Gita eats a cardboard box full of apples, yams and corn cobs. Then she eats the box.
"Here, put it in her mouth," says Briscoe, handing a visitor a whole unpeeled banana. "It's more personal."
Gita, perhaps sensing some hesitation on the visitor's part -- or simply spying the banana -- raises her trunk and obligingly opens wide. The inside of her mouth is soft and pillowy, and she snaps it shut once the banana is plunked in.
Gita is the most placid of the zoo's three elephants. Billy, the 21-year-old Asian bull, is never walked or allowed "unprotected" contact with anyone, including experienced animal keepers. He is also the only elephant the public will be able to see when the zoo begins construction of the new exhibit.
Ruby, the 45-year-old African female, is unpredictable and also not walked through the grounds.
After the morning walk, it's time for a dose of antibiotics. The vets and their technicians can't always find a suitable vein, though, so Gita does not receive the medicine every day. "We usually end up missing a day or two," says veterinarian Janna Wynne.
Gita, on command, hoists her front left foot onto a stool. Aguirre applies a tourniquet to ensure the antibiotic will be concentrated where it's needed. Wynne rubs the foot with a topical anesthetic and begins the trial-and-error process of looking for a vein. Gita flaps her ears and sways a bit but does not balk at the procedure. Wynne decides the wound is healed enough so that Gita can go without a bandage.
"Weekly X-rays indicate her foot appears to be healed," says L.A. Zoo director John Lewis. "We have in North America all these older animals. Now, we have these procedures to support them in their old age."
Animal welfare activists contend that zoo conditions cause foot problems in aging elephants, brought on by decades of walking on concrete. More than a decade ago, in line with a general shift in elephant management, the L.A. Zoo stopped confining elephants to concrete-floored barns at night. Today the elephants have soft dirt and loam to tread.
It's possible that Gita's foot problems -- and arthritis in her right front leg -- are the result of years on concrete. "It could be," says Lewis. "That's why [zoos] made these changes." But he adds that it's unclear. "Is it environment -- or genetic propensity? I don't know."
And we probably never will know, because here's another thing about Gita: She knows a number of English-language commands -- but she's not talking.