L.A. Zoo Elephant Dies During Transfer Attempt : Wildlife: Death of African bull Hannibal fuels controversy over plan to ship him to Mexican facility.


Hannibal, the Los Angeles Zoo’s rowdy, five-ton African bull elephant whose impending move to Mexico sparked controversy, died early Friday after officials failed in their effort to load the drug-sedated pachyderm onto a truck bound for his new home.

The death ended a drawn-out, much-criticized plan to relocate the troublesome Hannibal to a larger zoo habitat near Mexico City and fostered an immediate outcry from animal rights groups.

Hannibal became the third African male elephant to die under controversial circumstances at the Los Angeles Zoo in the last decade. Zoo officials refused to provide specifics of the earlier cases, but animal activists said both, like Hannibal, died during failed attempts to move them.


However, newly appointed Los Angeles Zoo Director Mark Goldstein defended the decision to move Hannibal, and expressed doubt that tranquilizing drugs caused the elephant’s death.

“As a veterinarian with 10 years experience, I have no reason to think there was an overdose,” Goldstein said Friday at a news conference, his voice cracking with emotion. “We lost a good friend trying to do what we thought was professionally best. Hannibal’s death is a terrible loss.

“If it had to happen,” he added, “at least it occurred while we were making the effort to transfer him to an environment more conducive to his needs.”

Although the 9-foot, 6-inch-tall Hannibal had become increasingly difficult to handle in his relatively small confines in Los Angeles, animal rights groups blasted the attempted move as ill-advised and dangerous.

Hannibal’s death followed a 10-hour ordeal in which he was sedated, then led into a specially constructed moving crate where he dropped to his knees in apparent reaction to tranquilizers.

Treatment was then given with an anti-tranquilizing drug, but the elephant never fully regained his feet, zoo officials said. An examination was begun Friday to determine whether the drugs were a factor in his death or whether Hannibal died of trauma, exhaustion or possibly other, unknown medical problems.

“We’re outraged by this and we’re going to call for the closure of the Los Angeles Zoo forevermore,” said an angry Bill Dyer, spokesman for Los Angeles-based Last Chance for Animals, an antivivisectionist group that announced plans for a public demonstration at the zoo next Saturday. “This is the last scandal in a long, sad history of their treatment of animals.”

Lisa Landres, a onetime elephant keeper and wildlife specialist with Friends of Animals, an international protection group, lashed out at the zoo for what she called “gross incompetence” for failing to learn from past difficulties in tranquilizing the 16-year-old elephant.

Last fall, when zoo officials first announced they were shipping Hannibal to the Zacango Zoo near Mexico City, Hannibal was tranquilized to get his toenails trimmed and failed to respond to an antidote. He fell to his side--a position in which elephants have difficulty breathing--and had to be lifted to his feet with a tow truck in a procedure that drew substantial media coverage.

Then last week, when Hannibal tore a metal door to his pen off its hinges, he received a substantial dose of tranquilizer and “almost fell in the moat” surrounding the enclosure, Goldstein said.

“For them to use drugs (again), that’s unconscionable,” Landres said. “There’s absolutely no excuse for this.”

Landres said zoo officials should have taken the time to “crate train” the elephant, teaching him over a period of weeks to enter a cage without the use of tranquilizers. Zoo officials, who acknowledged that there was no crate training, declined to respond to the criticism.

But Dale Tuttle, a noted elephant specialist in Jacksonville, Fla., who runs a survival program for the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, said crate training is sometimes impossible in zoos with small enclosures. A training crate cannot be placed outside the elephant’s normal enclosure because if an elephant gets wild, it can destroy a crate and escape.

Los Angeles Zoo officials began preparing for Hannibal’s attempted move Thursday morning when they administered 1,000 milligrams of the tranquilizer Rompun, a drug commonly used on elephants. Hannibal was then led inside the 9-foot-wide, 20-foot-long and 12-foot-high crate built for the five-day trip to Mexico.

After 90 minutes, Hannibal dropped to his knees, a position that prevented officials from loading him onto the truck, Goldstein said. Officials then administered periodic doses of the drug Yohimbine, a stimulant used to reverse the effects of Rompun. Over more than seven hours, handlers attempted to coax Hannibal to stand; at one point, they attempted to lift him with a canvas sling placed around his belly and hoisted from above by a cable, zoo officials said.

Nothing worked. By nightfall Thursday, Goldstein met with Los Angeles Zoo veterinarians, curators, elephant keepers and a veterinarian from the Zacango Zoo to decide whether to leave Hannibal overnight in the $10,000 crate or to try to remove him. A decision was made to leave him there and to make regular checks on his condition, Goldstein said. A handler found the elephant dead at 5:30 a.m. Friday.

Tuttle, who keeps close track of North America’s zoo stock of roughly 400 elephants, said the death underscores the great difficulty in drugging and transporting wild animals, especially male African elephants. “It’s one of the reasons we keep pushing for other means of handling them (besides drugs),” he said.

Relatively little medical knowledge exists on the effects of drugs on large wild animals, Tuttle said, and animals often react differently to the drugs they get.

“Humans do the same thing,” Tuttle said. “How many times do humans die on the operating table?”

The dosage of Rompun given to Hannibal was relatively small, Tuttle said, and Yohimbine is considered a safe reversal drug. The dosages in question would not seem to be dangerous, he said.

“All they were trying to do was to take the edge off him a bit to lead him into the cage,” Tuttle said.

African bull elephants, a threatened species, are considered especially difficult to keep in captivity because of their size and spirited independence.

Pat Derby, president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, blamed the Los Angeles Zoo for mishandling two other African male elephants, which normally live to 60 years. One elephant, Samson, was a 20-year-old who in 1986 was sedated by a zoo veterinarian and loaded into a Florida animal dealer’s truck.

According to documents filed in a lawsuit over the matter, there were problems with the sedation, and a veterinarian had to give Samson a drug to partially counteract the sedative. Samson died en route to his new home, the suit said.

A third elephant, Tumai, died in an unrelated incident in the mid-1980s, Derby said. Tumai was owned by an elephant ride concession and housed on zoo grounds, she said, and had to be put to death after being injured during an attempted move.

Zoo officials confirmed the two deaths but declined to elaborate.

Steven Simmons, a spokesman for the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said Hannibal’s death may increase the pressure on zoos to stop importing wild African animals. Hannibal’s demise comes scarcely a month after an incident in Florida in which a circus elephant “went berserk,” injuring several children before it was shot and killed.

“It’s becoming crystal clear that these animals do not fare well in captivity,” Simmons said. “It’s not surprising. Elephants have such a complex social structure; they are free-roaming animals. Their natural habitats are quite large.”

Los Angeles Zoo officials did not say where--or whether--Hannibal would be buried. But the necropsy is being conducted by a team of two veterinarians and two pathologists from the zoo, assisted by veterinary experts from the San Diego Zoo. Results are expected in about eight weeks.

Meanwhile, under a drizzling rain Friday, a blue plastic tarp marked the gray metal-and-wood crate where Hannibal lay for much of the morning. Zoo visitors--many of whom had followed the elephant’s ordeal on television and in the papers--were kept at a distance by yellow tables and wood barricades.

Cameron Nazemzadeh, 8, a second-grader visiting on a school field trip from La Mirada, was stunned to learn that the animal had died. “Oh, man, this is sad,” the child said. “He was going to Mexico. They wanted him to get up but he wouldn’t. I wonder why he died.”

Times staff writer Jane Fritsch contributed to this story.