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Zoo’s Care of Elephants Criticized : Animals: Humane Society letter is prompted by death of an animal that fell into moat. A spokesman denies conditions are ‘grossly inadequate.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a letter to the San Diego Zoo, investigators at the Humane Society of the United States contended Wednesday that the zoo’s elephant exhibit is inadequate and “extremely dangerous” for both the huge mammals and their keepers.

The open letter to Doug Meyers, director of the San Diego Zoological Society, was prompted by the death Sunday of Maya, a 51-year-old Asian elephant. Zoo officials ordered that Maya be killed after being crippled by a fall into an elephant yard moat.

“We do not question the care Maya received after her tragic fall, 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 contended that there are uninsulated floors and insufficient heat inside the barn-like structure and that the exhibit provides limited outdoor shelter. He also questioned the daily reliance on chains to restrain the elephants and called for widening of the catwalk connecting two parts of the elephant yard.

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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 improving it. Shade trees have been planted and decaying floorboards replaced, he said. The zoo also plans to widen the catwalk.

Jouett rejected Wills’ charge that Maya might be alive if the catwalk were wider, saying no one witnessed her fall or her position on the walkway. He also denied that the exhibit, which 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 “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.

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