Aftermath of Dunda Beating : Elephant Care and Staff Has Changed at S.D. Park

Times Staff Writer

A year after the beating of Dunda the elephant erupted into a public controversy, the elephant staff at the San Diego Wild Animal Park has been decimated, largely by voluntary transfers, forcing major changes in the management of elephants at the park.

Park officials have temporarily canceled the popular elephant shows and rides due to the lack of adequately trained staff, and have put on hold several other aspects of the elephant program, including Dunda's participation in the breeding project, which was the stated reason for her transfer from the San Diego Zoo to the park last year.

Instead, park officials are concentrating on rebuilding the elephant staff with experienced keepers.

Requested Transfers

Two of the five keepers who participated in the beating requested transfers to the construction and maintenance staff after their houses were vandalized by animal rights activists last year, said Tom Hanscom, a spokesman for the park. Some keepers who were not involved in the beating have quit for other reasons, according to sources at the park, who also said that turnover among keepers is high. One highly experienced keeper left because of illness.

Alan Roocroft, the keeper in charge of the Dunda disciplinary sessions, remains in his position as head of the elephant staff, but sources say he may take another position within the Zoological Society.

"We've had to back off on certain activities," Hanscom said. "We feed and bathe and monitor and take care of feet--the essential activities."

The situation is the result of a tumultuous year during which elephant keepers at the zoo became embroiled in a bitter dispute with their colleagues at the park, the zoo's sister institution, over the handling of Dunda.

The controversy first became public in May, 1988, when keepers at the zoo, contacted by The Times, confirmed reports that they had complained to zoo officials about the treatment of Dunda.

Dunda had been transferred to the park in February, 1988, from the zoo, where she had spent most of her life. The zookeepers, Steve Friedlund and Lisa Landres, asserted that insufficient preparation was made for the transfer and that keepers at the park unnecessarily and brutally beat the elephant.

'Home-Run Swings'

Subsequent investigations showed that Dunda was chained by all four legs, pulled to the ground, and beaten in several sessions over two days by five keepers using ax handles. One of the keepers described the blows as "home-run swings."

The San Diego Humane Society found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute anyone under animal cruelty laws, but the U. S. Department of Agriculture admonished the park for exceeding disciplinary measures acceptable under federal regulations.

Nationally, a committee of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has drawn up the nation's first guidelines for the handling of captive elephants in response to the controversy sparked by the Dunda incident. The association's executive board is expected to vote on the guidelines next month.

In Sacramento, the Senate has approved legislation banning elephant abuse. The bill is pending in the Assembly.

As for Dunda, the wounds on her head have healed, but she has had a rough time with her new family. As the newest member of the African elephant herd at the park, the skittish 19-year-old has been roughed up and pushed around a number of times, especially at the beginning, by Peaches, the herd's huge matriarch, according to Hanscom, the park spokesman.

Things are better now, he said, but Dunda "finds herself still toward the bottom" of the pecking order in the herd of eight female African elephants. She has, however, found a friend in another young elephant.

No Further Discipline

There have been no further disciplinary sessions involving chaining and beating for Dunda or any of the other elephants, Hanscom said.

Throughout the controversy, Friedlund and Landres, the San Diego Zoo handlers who first complained about the beating, have hung on to their jobs. But now, as the issue fades, they say they have been forced to hire lawyers to defend themselves against a campaign of harassment by zoo officials. A series of formal disciplinary actions has been brought against them. Landres faces a charge that an anonymous visitor complained of seeing her smoking a cigarette in violation of zoo policy.

Friedlund and Landres, each of whom has worked for the Zoological Society for more than a decade, say it is clear officials of the society, which operates the zoo and the park, want to get rid of them in retaliation for publicly embarrassing the institutions.

"They are not being harassed and we cannot discuss employee relations," said Georgeanne Irvine, public relations manager for the zoo. "It's confidential."

Zoological Society officials, including Douglas Myers, the executive director, have staunchly backed the actions of the keepers at the park throughout the controversy.

Stripped of Responsibility

"As of today, I haven't got one ounce of authority," Friedlund, 43, said last week. He said he continues to hold the title of "senior animal trainer," but has, in effect, been demoted. "I am not included in any meetings or any decision-making procedures whatsoever."

Friedlund said he has been stripped of his responsibility for scheduling the zoo's elephant keepers and has even lost his authority to requisition supplies for the elephant barn. He said he learned this one day when he tried to pick up some supplies and found that his name had been crossed off the list of employees authorized to do so.

"Now I answer to a person who is my level," he said.

After years of glowing performance evaluations, Friedlund has received his first post-Dunda evaluation, and it was "highly negative," he said.

"I got an extremely poor evaluation," he said. "The issues brought up in it were false. They were written by people who have no idea what my daily activities are."

The situation is "even more hostile than ever before," he said. "It's open hostility and it's directed right in my face."

New Management Approach

Irvine, the public relations manager, said last week that Friedlund has not been demoted but that a reorganization of the curatorial staff had resulted in a more "hands-on" management approach by his superiors. She added that personnel policy prohibits officials from publicly discussing individual employees.

Landres, 34, said she is fighting several disciplinary actions, including the smoking complaint, which was lodged against her last January, a month after she quit smoking. Neither she nor Friedlund had ever received a disciplinary complaint before the Dunda incident, they said.

Both got a warning last summer when they commented on a log sheet that they thought a proposal to leave some elephants outside the barn at night was unsafe. Zoo officials said the comment was inappropriate editorializing.

According to the smoking complaint, an unnamed visitor contacted the zoo's public relations department to report that Landres had been seen smoking in the elephant enclosure.

Zoo policy bars smoking in the animal exhibits, zoo vehicles and many other areas. Irvine said last week that no information was readily available on whether any other employees have been formally disciplined for violating the smoking policy.

Living Under a Cloud

"Steve and I live under this cloud," Landres said. "They've put us in this niche of 'troublemakers.' . . . There have been so many ugly confrontations. They just seem to do everything they can to make our lives miserable.

"We honestly want to get on with taking care of the elephants, but the lines of communication are just shut," she said. "It's very well known that they just want us out."

Friedlund and Landres are engaged in an argument with their superiors over a 3-week-old policy that requires keepers to work alone with the elephants for four hours each shift. Friedlund and Landres say that working alone around elephants is unsafe and is a violation of zoo policy.

Indeed, a 1986 zoo memo says: "Under no circumstances are the elephants to be worked by a single keeper. There is to be a minimum of two keepers in the area at any one time. This is a safety precaution and will be adhered to."

A 1987 memo, sent out as a reminder to departmental supervisors at the zoo, says that "elephant personnel are not to work the elephant area alone. . . . Adjust your work schedule to reflect these safety considerations."

Under the new schedule, which coincides with the zoo's extended summer hours, one keeper works from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and the other from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Can Radio for Help

The keepers are not required to enter the elephant enclosure alone, according to Irvine, but may do so if they consider the situation safe. If trouble arises, the keeper can radio for help, she said. The schedule is healthier for the elephants, she said, because it allows them to stay outside in the elephant yard for a longer period each day. For safety reasons, the elephants are locked inside the elephant barn each night when the keepers go home.

Friedlund said he and Landres agree that the elephants benefit by longer periods outside the barn, but say the solution should be to hire more keepers.

"You never work around elephants alone," he said. The situation is too unpredictable and a keeper could easily be knocked unconscious and be unable to call for help, he said.

"You don't take a chance around five huge animals like that. It's a dangerous, idiotic thing to do." The zoo "will not provide extra people to cover the summer hours," Friedlund said. "They tried to do this two years ago and we went to Doug Myers. He said we were right."

Landres called the new schedule "retaliation" and said: "I think under normal circumstances we wouldn't have to fight with them. They know better. They're trying to make it so uncomfortable we'll quit."

Both say they have no plans to leave, but neither is hopeful that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°