A Giant Step to Safety : * The L.A. Zoo spends $1.2 million renovating its elephant barn to provide more protection for keepers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George French loves his profession, even though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rates it the most dangerous in North America.

French doesn't race cars or fight fires. He tends elephants.

But whether French is feeding onions to his huge charges or trimming their fist-sized toenails, he's feeling a lot safer these days, now that the Los Angeles Zoo has spent $1.2 million to renovate its elephant barn.

The renovation did little to change what zoo visitors see. But it transformed the barn's interior, making it bright and airy and adding such elephant amenities as a heated floor that dries quickly and is easier on the animals' surprisingly tender feet. The renovation also included the installation of 22 hydraulic doors and gates, an elephant chute and other features that are designed primarily to keep the keepers safe.

That is no small concern. Last year, four keepers were killed by elephants in North America. Although the Los Angeles Zoo has never lost an elephant keeper, fatalities elsewhere have averaged one a year over the last two decades. Elephants are extraordinary, keepers will tell you, but they are not the gentle giants of myth and Disney movies. Their size alone--they are the world's largest land animals--makes them daunting to handle. As zoo director Mark Goldstein points out: "Elephants are magnificent, but they weigh 10- to 12,000 pounds."

Their massiveness is only one of the reasons that elephant management is the zoo's riskiest business. Elephants stake out their territory, even in zoos. They form social structures in which the females typically jockey, even fight, for dominance. And the males, fueled by testosterone, are notoriously aggressive when in a state probably related to sexual arousal called "must."

Elephants can't help behaving like elephants, and zoo personnel wouldn't want them to. But concerns about staff safety are causing many zoos and animal parks to rethink their approaches to caring for North America's 600 or 700 captive elephants. Elephant safety is also an issue. As Goldstein points out, elephants' lives are always at risk when they are anesthetized or otherwise controlled chemically.

The renovation of the barn allows zoo personnel to have something called "protected contact" with their charges. That means, explains Les Schobert, the zoo's general curator, "that the keepers stay on one side of the bars and the elephants on the other."

Even with protected contact, the Los Angeles elephant keepers always work in pairs. As French, who has spent almost 30 years tending elephants, points out, they are highly intelligent. "These animals will outthink you, if you're not careful." You need common sense to work successfully with elephants, according to French, who has been knocked down a couple of times but never seriously injured. You need to know your limitations, he says. And he warns against deluding yourself that the animals won't hurt you because they like you.

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Besides making the barn a safer place for people, the changes have made it a better place for elephants. Light pours into the remodeled facility from skylights 20 feet above the floor. Los Angeles' four females--two African, two Asians--can now wander in and out of the barn at will, and they are no longer chained up for the night. Instead, Schobert says, they are briefly chained once or twice a day so they will tolerate chaining if it is required for a veterinary exam or some other reason.

French says that Tara, a 20-something African female who stands nine feet tall and weighs five tons, has become much easier to handle since the remodeling. Tara never liked the dark old barn, he says, and resisted going into it. Tara seems much calmer now, he says, "much less stressed."

"What this does is give us flexibility and options," says Schobert of the rehabbed barn. Hydraulic gates can be moved to create individual stalls. The gates, which weigh as much as an elephant, can be moved by hand or operated remotely from a control room equipped with video monitors. An animal that needs veterinary care can be restrained humanely in the adjustable elephant chute.

As enthusiastic as local zoo personnel are about protected contact, it is not universally hailed. According to Goldstein, how best to manage elephants is a hot topic in zoo circles these days, but no consensus has emerged. Some critics say protected contact is a cop-out by zoos fearful of lawsuits and unwilling to commit the enormous time and resources needed to train staff properly to work with elephants without barriers.

Until 20 years ago, elephants were always tended by male keepers, many with circus backgrounds, who worked with elephants for their entire careers. Traditionally, keepers dominated the animals physically, using elephant hooks and even electric prods.

All that has changed. More and more girls are deciding they want to be elephant keepers when they grow up. The old ways of controlling elephants are seen as cruel and abusive. As Goldstein explains, elephant management is becoming increasingly professional, but it is very much a profession in flux.

John Lehnhardt, an elephant expert at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., thinks protected contact is a useful tool, but only one in the panoply that elephant keepers need, including skillful free contact, or contact without bars. "Protected contact's not the be-all and end-all," says Lehnhardt, who reminds that a British keeper was killed recently despite the technique, when an elephant grabbed him with its trunk and crushed him against the barrier bars.

A former keeper, Lehnhardt once required neck surgery after a young bull elephant broke several of his vertebrae. "He knocked me down and did a headstand on me," Lehnhardt recalls matter-of-factly.

As Lehnhardt reminds, zoos do not yet know what impact, if any, protected contact will have on captive elephants' reproductive success--ever more important as the herds of wild elephants decrease. He hopes zoos will come to regard the approach as one among many, rather than a panacea. "We can't lose all the other technologies we have."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Location: Griffith Park, 5333 Zoo Drive.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission: $8 general, $5 seniors, $3 children 2 through 12.

Call: (213) 666-4090.

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