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National Group Forms Elephant Task Force : Zoo Society Avoids Censure Over Dunda

Times Staff Writer

The American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has decided not to cite the Zoological Society of San Diego for ethics violations in the beating of Dunda the elephant.

However, because of the controversy over the Dunda incident, the association’s board has formed a special task force of elephant experts to “conduct a comprehensive examination of elephant training tactics,” according to a letter written by Robert O. Wagner, executive director of the AAZPA.

The AAZPA decision came after the Zoological Society of San Diego mounted a campaign with officials of zoos across the country, objecting to the organization “sitting in judgment” over the “internal operations” of members. The AAZPA is a voluntary trade organization that accredits zoos and aquariums and is supported by the contributions of its members.

Betty Jo Williams, chairman of the board of the Zoological Society of San Diego, urged in a letter, obtained by The Times, that AAZPA members get together to take “corrective action” against the AAZPA board.

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The letter was telecopied to zoo officials nationwide Sept. 23, two days before the opening of the AAZPA’s annual convention, where disciplinary action against the zoo was to be considered, a source told The Times.

Williams wrote that, since the AAZPA was founded in 1971, it has drifted away from its original intention of providing a means for “like-minded institutions whose cooperative purpose was to help one another.”

“Unfortunately,” Williams wrote, “the association has gradually acquired an institutional life of its own, assuming a posture of overseership, sitting in judgment over the internal operations of association members.”

Dunda Incident at Issue

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At issue was an incident involving an 18-year-old female African elephant called Dunda, which was transferred last February from the San Diego Zoo, where she had spent most of her life, to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where she was to become part of a breeding herd.

Keepers at the park, led by Alan Roocroft, chained her by all four legs, pulled her to the ground, and beat her on the head with ax handles during several sessions over two days. One of the five participants described the blows to San Diego Humane Society investigators as “home-run swings.”

Officials of the Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates both institutions, have said they believe the beatings were an appropriate method of disciplining a dangerous animal, but Dunda’s former keepers at the zoo criticized the sessions as unnecessary and brutal.

The decision not to censure the Zoological Society was reached after the AAZPA’s ethics committee held lengthy closed-door sessions over several days at the convention in Milwaukee, according to Wagner’s letter to the Humane Society of the United States, which had lodged a complaint with the AAZPA several months ago.

The ethics committee, and later the full board, found that “no consensus of appropriate and acceptable protocol exists” regarding captive elephants and that they “could not conclude that the San Diego Zoo or the Wild Animal Park elephant keeper staff violated the AAZPA code of professional ethics,” Wagner’s letter said.

Attempts to reach Wagner for comment were unsuccessful.

David Herbet, captive-wildlife specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, said Tuesday that his organization disagrees with the AAZPA finding, “but we are encouraged that the AAZPA saw the need to create a task force. By creating a task force, it’s a sign that something is wrong with handling of elephants in captivity. The ethics board must certainly have seen some problem or mishandling.”

Trying to Get Copy

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Herbet said he is attempting to obtain a copy of a lengthy report on the matter prepared by the AAZPA, but has not been successful.

Attempts to reach officials of the Zoological Society of San Diego on Tuesday also were unsuccessful.

In her letter to other zoos last month, Williams, apparently referring to Roocroft, wrote that the Dunda incident “was a case where a respected colleague and member of the association was immersed in a cloud of misrepresentation, distortion and press exploitation.

“It was a classic opportunity for AAZPA to make a painstaking and unemotional study of the incident,” she said, “to determine the facts and to publicly declare their support of the member.” Williams also pointed out that the AAZPA “survives economically on the voluntary contributions of its members.”

Lisa Landres, one of the elephant keepers at the San Diego Zoo whose complaints led to several investigations of the incident, said Tuesday that neither she nor any of the handlers who objected to the treatment of Dunda were contacted by the AAZPA during its investigation.


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