Advertisement

Zoo Society Memo Tries to Stem Tide of Abuse Queries

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Besieged by calls and questions about the alleged beating of an elephant, the San Diego Zoological Society on Friday distributed a memo to all its employees to set out the “facts” about the incident, which occurred last February at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Although insisting that no final conclusions have been reached, Douglas Myers, executive director of the society, contradicted allegations made by elephant keepers at the zoo and appeared to back the contentions of Wild Animal Park keepers, who say no abuse occurred.

Elephant keepers at the zoo responded Friday that Myers’ memo was “nonsense” and said he had never spoken to them to hear their side of the story.

Advertisement

The four-page memo was an attempt to explain the situation to employees of both the zoo and the park, who have been inundated by calls and questions from friends, relatives and the public since Wednesday, when the abuse allegations were first published, said Jeff Jouett, a publicist for the Zoological Society, which manages both the zoo and the Wild Animal Park.

Some tourists have been especially hostile toward employees of the Wild Animal Park, Jouett said, making “quite rude” comments to the staff.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects and licenses the zoo and park, has begun an investigation of the incident. A USDA inspector will visit the park Tuesday, according to Dario Cappucci of the department’s Sacramento office.

An investigator for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States also will visit the park Tuesday. The San Diego Humane Society, which is not connected with the Washington group, is also investigating.

The controversy arose over the handling of an 18-year-old African elephant called Dunda, who lived most of her life at the San Diego Zoo but was transferred to the Wild Animal Park Feb. 16 to become part of a breeding program.

Poor Preparation for Move?

Keepers at the zoo say Dunda, always a nervous animal, was transferred without proper preparation, including time before the move to adjust to her crate and meet her new keepers while still on familiar turf.

Advertisement

Once at the Wild Animal Park, Dunda, by then extremely frightened, was chained by all four legs, pulled to the ground and struck on the head more than 100 times over two days with heavy sticks or ax handles, the zookeepers say.

Myers contends in his memo, distributed Friday, that Dunda was one of the most troublesome elephants in the Zoological Society’s collection. He also points out that the cost of the move--$6,878 for a crate, $880 for a crane and $725 for a truck and driver--”exceed(ed) the market value of the animal.”

In a chronology, Myers said Dunda arrived at the zoo from Africa in 1971 and was transferred the subsequent year to the park, where she was “the most difficult of the calves to work with” and a “constant management problem.”

Dunda was returned to the zoo in 1977, Myers said in his memo, “because of her temperament, disposition and difficulty in management.” At the zoo, she was singled out for aggression by the other elephants and was once pushed in the moat, breaking her jaw, he said.

Steve Friedlund, one of the zoo trainers who has made the abuse charges, called Myers’ description “absolute nonsense.” Friedlund said he worked at the park in the early 1970s and knew Dunda to be no more or less a problem than any of the elephant calves. Myers has no firsthand knowledge of the events because he was not working for the society at the time, Friedlund said.

Friedlund also said Dunda was returned to the zoo to replace an African elephant that had to be removed because of behavioral problems, not because Dunda herself was a problem. Nor was Dunda singled out by the other elephants, he said. All the elephants in the exhibit during those years were pushed into the moat by one problem animal, he said.

Advertisement

Most troubling, Friedlund said, was Myers’ insistence in the memo that the elephant keepers at the zoo were consulted for their opinions about Dunda’s move last February.

“Steve Friedlund was contacted at home twice while on vacation,” Myers said in the memo.

Said Friedlund: “I called Carmi Penny (a supervisor) on the phone from my home after I heard rumors about the move. Never once did Carmi Penny ever contact me at any time.” Friedlund added that his suggestion that the move be slowed was ignored, as was his advice about how to handle the animal in her new surroundings at the park.

“I told them emphatically, ‘Do not isolate her, do not lock her up. You are going to lose control of her,’ ” Friedlund said.

Shortly after her arrival at the park, Dunda was chained by all four legs in a stall at the elephant barn. In an interview with The Times, Alan Roocroft, the trainer in charge of the elephants at the Wild Animal Park, described Dunda’s behavior as increasingly threatening and erratic as the effects of a tranquilizer wore off on the second day after her transfer.

Myers, in his memo, said that Dunda “appeared calm,” by the second day, but became agitated when Lisa Landres, a keeper from the zoo, visited her. “Dunda aggressively charged Lisa with such force that she broke a tusk on the bars in the barn,” the memo says.

Landres said Friday that she went to the barn to offer advice because she knew the elephant well, but was “verbally abused” by the park trainers and ordered to leave.

Advertisement

Dunda was “short-chained on all four legs,” Landres said. “She was swinging out at me, she was swinging out at anything. She was scared to death. She was frightened.”

Regarding the memo, Landres said, “Doug Myers never spoke to me about it. . . . He never tried to get my part of the story.”

Advertisement