Investigators at the Humane Society of the United States sent a letter Wednesday to the San Diego Zoo charging that its elephant exhibit is inadequate and “extremely dangerous” for both the huge mammals and their keepers.
The letter to Doug Meyers, the director of the San Diego Zoological Society, was prompted by the death Sunday of Maya, a 51-year-old Asian elephant that was put to death after she fell into a moat and crippled herself.
“We do not question the care Maya received after her tragic fall into the moat, nor the fact that euthanasia was the humane decision to make on her behalf,” wrote David K. Wills, a vice president in the Humane Society’s Department of Investigations. “However, we are concerned as to what steps zoo officials are going to take to improve conditions for the surviving elephants.”
Wills criticized the exhibit for its uninsulated floors and its lack of heat inside the barn, its limited outdoor shelter and its daily reliance upon chains to restrain the elephants. In addition, he charged that a cat walk that connects two areas of the elephant yard is precariously narrow and he called for it to be widened.
Jeff Jouett, a spokesman for the zoo, acknowledged that the nearly 30-year-old elephant yard is “not perfect,” but he said the zoo is in the midst of making improvements. So far, they have planted shade trees, he said, and replaced decaying floor boards with cement.
Jouett said the zoo also plans to widen the cat walk. But he rejected Wills’ claim that “if the cat walk were widened, Maya might still be alive today,” saying that while no one witnessed her fall, her placement in the moat indicated she did not fall off the walkway. Jouett also dismissed Wills’ assertion that the exhibit, which now houses one African and three Asian elephants, is “grossly inadequate.”
“It has passed USDA inspections and we’ll welcome the USDA to come look at it again,” Jouett said, noting that Wills has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the exhibit. He called most of Wills’ allegations “just exaggerations to catch the public’s attention. It makes nice quotes but it’s just not true.”
Dr. Homer Malaby, a USDA animal care specialist in Sacramento, said he will visit the zoo next week to investigate the Humane Society’s allegations. Of particular interest, he said, was their charge that the animals have no way to escape the rain during the day because they are locked out of their barn.
“If the only shelter the animals have from inclement weather is their indoor housing facility and if they’re put out every morning and not allowed back in, no matter what the weather, then yes, that would be a violation of the Animal Welfare Act,” Malaby said.
But Jouett said that the barn door is always opened when it rains.
“They only need walk into the barn,” he said, characterizing Wills’ letter as an attempt to drum up negative publicity. “It’s the animal ambulance chaser syndrome--take a tragedy and use it to get your name in the paper.”
Wills’ letter asserts that nearly half of the zoos approved by the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums have abandoned the practice of chaining elephants at night.
But Jouett said he was “sure” that was an overstatement--he has only heard of a handful zoos that don’t use chains. In the winter months, he said, the San Diego Zoo chains its elephants for 16 hours a day, while the rest of the year the animals are chained for about 12 hours a day.
“They’re chained for the protection of the elephants and the people to make sure they don’t steal each others’ food and to maintain the safety of the keepers,” Jouett said.
Jouett called Wills’ contention that the elephant barn should be heated “intentional misrepresentation.”
“The temperature in the elephant barn is not cold,” he said. Even during the recent frigid weather, he said, when the barn is closed at night “a person could walk in there and break a sweat. We have four huge animals that are like furnaces--four huge masses of body heat. Elephants have a problem staying cool, not staying warm. It’s not a concern.”