The Preventable Death of an Elephant : Hannibal: Mistakes were made. Fatal ones. Zoo officials should admit them, and learn from them.

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Cheryl R. Shawver, an elephant trainer, owns and operates the Carlisle Wild Animal Farm in Thousand Oaks. She advised the independent commission that probed the death of Hannibal.

Increasingly, zoological parks are being thrust under a microscope, in particular by some animal rights groups that want do away with zoos altogether. Because of this, many of us who work with animals run scared, afraid to admit any wrongdoing when an accident or mistake takes place. Yet if we cannot admit when we are wrong, who will believe us when we are right? Rather than crafting a damage control strategy reminiscent of Watergate, we must have faith that the public will understand and accept occasional human errors as long as we admit them and make every effort to prevent their repetition.

In November, a report was released by the office of Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro on the death of Hannibal, the Los Angeles Zoo’s young and healthy African bull elephant who died in the process of being moved to Mexico. A week later, the head of the independent commission that wrote the report, USC Vivarium Director William Blackmore, told Recreation and Parks Commissioners that Hannibal’s death was preventable.

Hannibal’s troubled history consisted of three incidents over six months in preparation for his move. First, on Sept. 8, 1991, Hannibal was sedated and chained in an effort to load him into a transport trailer. Several hours into the attempt, he went down. Due to Hannibal’s trauma and exhaustion, the effort was aborted. Nine days later, Hannibal was sedated for treatment of injuries sustained during the first move attempt. As a result, he was unable to rise for more than 30 hours; it took a crane and the guidance of outside elephant experts to get him to his feet again. Finally, on March 18, 1992, Hannibal was sedated so that restraints could be put on his legs, then sedated again on March 19 for loading into a shipping crate. Again, he went down and was left that way, in the crate, for 21 hours. He was found dead March 20.


Given zoo officials’ knowledge of Hannibal’s problems when sedated, common sense tells us that a reaction of this type could be anticipated. Moreover, when an elephant is down with the suffocating pressure of his weight on his chest for any length of time, it is a life-threatening, emergency situation. It is a fundamental axiom in the elephant community that “a down elephant is a dead elephant.” Therefore, it amazes me that Hannibal could have been left down for so long with any expectation that he would be able to live, let alone get up again.

Several outside experts were consulted in anticipation of the move. What is not widely known, however, is none of these experts agreed with the zoo’s transport methods. In fact, each had alternative suggestions on how to move Hannibal. Furthermore, the fact that there exists, in New York, a professional elephant transporter with more than 500 moves to his credit--and a 100% success rate--suggests there is a right way.

The recommendations by the independent commission call for oversight measures to ensure there is not another “Hannibal incident.” Yet zoo officials say there is nothing they would do differently were they to move Hannibal again. To stubbornly maintain such a position is to be more concerned with preserving the zoo’s public image than with ensuring the well-being of the animals in its trust.