S.F. Zoo’s Handling of Elephants Draws Fire

United Press International

A report Tuesday blasted the San Francisco Zoo’s Asian elephant program and laid blame for an Oct. 1 incident in which a trainer was seriously injured on poor zoo management.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the zoo “has been derelict in its responsibility to provide an adequately guided, properly supported, humane Asian elephant management program.”

The SPCA interviewed current and former zoo personnel, as well as outside animal experts. Information obtained during the five-week investigation “made it abundantly clear that there are serious deficiencies” in the program.

Zoo officials were not immediately available for comment.


On Oct. 1, a 22-year-old elephant named Tinkerbelle, who weighs 6,900 pounds and stands 8 feet at the shoulders, injured two zoo workers.

The workers, attempting to treat an abscess in Tinkerbelle’s mouth, were Gail Hedberg, a veterinary technician, and David Bocian, a zookeeper.

Hedberg suffered a broken pelvis when Tinkerbelle knocked her down and did a headstand upon her. Bocian was knocked unconscious when Tinkerbelle tossed him into a moat surrounding the elephant house.

The SPCA concluded that the accident was “predictable and could have been prevented.”


Shortly after the incident, the watchdog group Citizens for a Better Zoo charged that Tinkerbelle and other elephants had been routinely beaten and treated roughly while being taught tricks such as headstands, and consequently associated pain with doing tricks.

Zoo Director Saul Kitchener responded to the initial allegations by defending the use of tools, including a metal hook known as an ankus and a cattle prod-like device called a “hot shot.”

“We have to use elephant hooks and other methods that may appear abusive because we are not dealing with puppy dogs and pussy cats,” he said.

SPCA report authors Michael Knapp and Kimberly Karr-Warner noted that “in order to effectively manage captive elephants, a keeper must establish dominance over them.”


Animal experts agree, saying a zookeeper must assume the role of the dominant elephant in the herd.

But on occasions, including but not limited to the Oct. 1 incident, the report said, zoo workers used excessive force and routinely struck elephants with the hot shot, which is intended only for emergency use.

Several keepers said they believed that the routines elephants were required to perform were inappropriate for zoo animals and that the tricks were not necessary to maintain control.

The report criticized the zoo for employing only two primary elephant keepers, both of whom have additional work outside of their elephant duties. The SPCA also faulted the zoo’s system of record keeping and a lack of written policies, protocols, procedures or guidelines for elephant handlers.


The report also said that after the Oct. 1 incident, Tinkerbelle received “inappropriate and excessive discipline.” Specifically, zoo workers waited 45 minutes to discipline Tinkerbelle for the headstand, and may have caused her to become confused.