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Elephant's death puts zoos in spotlight

As Seattle mourns, the loss adds fuel to animal groups' claim that such casualties are linked to city captivity.

June 25, 2007|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The death of Hansa the elephant remains a mystery. Last week, preliminary necropsy results only ruled out a host of illnesses in the sudden demise of the 6-year-old star of Woodland Park Zoo.

Hansa's death set off public mourning in the city, and again raised questions about the advisability of keeping elephants in urban zoos.

Seattleites have left many flowers and the occasional bouquet of carrots at the zoo entrance. The park's memorial Web page for Hansa (www.zoo.org/hansa_memorial/index.html) rapidly filled with comments, some from as far away as Europe and Australia, but most from her hometown.

"Hansa brought such light and joy to our city!" reads one entry.

National animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals of San Rafael, Calif., point to zoo conditions -- the lack of space and the inappropriate terrain -- as likely factors in the deaths of Hansa; of two other elephants who were euthanized this month, one in San Diego and one in Birmingham, Ala.; and of Gita at the Los Angeles Zoo last year.

"When you look at the life span of elephants in the wild, they live into their 70s. In zoos, they are lucky to get through their 40s," says Catherine Doyle of In Defense of Animals. "Urban zoos simply don't have enough space for these magnificent, intelligent animals."

Doyle says zoo elephants' ills -- chronic arthritis, foot ailments and even social problems like aggression -- relate directly to the animals' limited exercise space and lack of mental stimulation. Doyle's group studies zoo elephants' medical records, and many experts agree with her group's conclusions.

But some experts see it differently.

Woodland Park Zoo Deputy Director Bruce Bohmke calls the limited-space argument simplistic and says that elephants in accredited zoos receive the best possible care.

"It's not that [In Defense of Animals] doesn't sometimes point out problems that need to be fixed in some smaller roadside zoos," Bohmke says, "but in accredited zoos we are doing a good job."

The Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, the national accrediting body for zoos, filed a series of comments in December with the Department of Agriculture, which regulates U.S. zoos.

"The overall health and foot health of these elephants is excellent.... On a 10-point scale, with 10 indicating the highest level of overall health, the average score for 284 elephants in AZA-accredited zoos was 8.74," the report stated.

Bohmke says groups like In Defense of Animals look at the elephants from a different perspective than zoos do.

The animal group "looks at each elephant individually, on a case-by-case basis, whereas we look at the survival of the species in the wild as a whole. That's what we are working for," he said. "Our elephants are ambassadors. As zoos, we try to connect people in urban areas to nature, to animals they would otherwise never see. It's hard to do that if nature isn't there. That connection that people make at the zoo, with the elephants or with other animals, can motivate them to act, financially or politically."

Steve Feldman, communications director for the zoo accreditation group, agrees. The money zoos provide for conservation programs in the wild is significant, he says.

"Our programs are doing real things -- reducing ivory trade, increasing habitat, just to list a couple -- for elephants in the wild," he says.

But for Doyle, the issue is clear-cut: "There can be no justification for keeping elephants in conditions that cause them to suffer and die prematurely," she says.

Complete necropsy results on Hansa, who died June 8, won't be available for several more weeks. The preliminary results released Friday represent about half of the tests that will be done. Colic, gastric torsion, genetic diseases, cancer and salmonellosis were eliminated as possible causes of death.

On Nov. 3, 2000, Hansa was the first elephant born at Woodland Park Zoo, and in the state of Washington. Thousands of children entered a contest to name her, and hundreds waited in line for her first appearance in the elephant exhibit. A birthday party when she turned 5 was one of the zoo's most attended events in recent years.

Last week, Pam Nolan, 36, from Renton, south of Seattle, brought her 6-year-old son, Jeremy, to the zoo.

"I wasn't sure if he'd remember Hansa. He always loved her, but we haven't been here for six months.

"His dad's puppy died a few weeks ago -- and I just didn't have the heart to tell him about the elephant," Nolan said.

Sure enough, the first thing Jeremy asked to see at the zoo was the baby elephant, said his mother.

"And I had to tell him."

Looking into the elephant enclosure at Hansa's mother, Chai, Jeremy said, "I think the big elephants look sad."

Though it has been a difficult few weeks at the zoo, Bohmke says the public reaction to Hansa's death has given the zoo direct proof that its mission is on track.

"We want to move people to care.

"The outpouring of support we've received from people in reaction to Hansa's death shows that we are succeeding in spades," he says.

lynn.marshall@latimes.com

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