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Multiple Ailments Plagued Elephant Before Death

Times Staff Writer

When Gita, the L.A. Zoo’s beloved 48-year-old Asian elephant, died in June, zoo officials said that as recently as the day before she had appeared to be doing well and had healed from surgery on her left front foot.

But the zoo’s medical records from the two months leading up to Gita’s death paint a picture of an animal battling a number of ailments. Gita was suffering from several abscesses on her body -- probably from leaning against the bars of her barn -- that continued to grow even as veterinarians treated them. The sole of her right front foot had developed a sore that had to be debrided and covered with a protective boot. And in the days before her death, when the zoo’s staff tried to administer antibiotics intravenously to her left foot, the usually placid and accommodating elephant was “antsy” one day and “agitated” another, making treatment impossible.

A complete necropsy on Gita is expected in the next couple of weeks, according to an official of the lab performing the animal pathology.

The medical records were obtained by the animal rights group In Defense of Animals through the California Public Records Act. Catherine Doyle, a member of the group, gave a copy of the records to The Times.

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“Over and over again, the zoo kept saying Gita is fine when in fact the medical records show the animal was suffering daily,” Doyle said. “There were clear indications she was trying to get her weight off her front feet, and the Los Angeles Zoo was negligent in monitoring her in order to avoid the situation that did happen.”

Gita was found in her enclosure, with her back legs tucked under her and her front legs outstretched, about 5 a.m. June 10. The 8,000-pound animal died at 9:40 a.m. after toxins from her muscles flooded her system and caused vascular distress, zoo officials said.

Mel Richardson, a former zoo veterinarian now in private practice in Paradise, Calif., near Chico, reviewed the records for the animal rights group, which, he said, paid him for his time and medical opinion.

“Before I got to the end of those records, I thought, ‘Why don’t they put her down?’ They had to see she was doing badly,” Richardson said.

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But zoo Director John Lewis asserted that Gita’s health had not appeared grim. “Yes, she had some things going on, but none was causing great alarm,” said Lewis, who said Gita was still taking regular walks around the zoo in the days before she died.

Gita, who had state-of-the-art surgery last fall for a raging infection in her left front foot, had been under round-the-clock monitoring until late April, according to zookeepers.

“If we had thought for a moment that we were that close” to her dying, Lewis said, “we would have had her back on 24/7 observation.”

Gita’s ill health is a particularly controversial issue at a time when zoos in general, and the L.A. Zoo in particular, are under fire from animal rights activists for keeping elephants. Gita’s death even attracted the attention of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who last year commissioned a study on whether the L.A. Zoo should continue with plans for a new elephant exhibit (concluding that the planned exhibit should be made larger) and who called for a full accounting of Gita’s death.

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The April medical records made note of a swelling above Gita’s tail, and by May the records referred to it as a “sterile abscess.” “New problem,” the records note May 5: The elephant had developed a swelling on the right hip. Five days later, the records say the causes were unknown and that there were “no other signs of systemic illness.” On May 12, the tail base abscess was larger.

Notes indicate that veterinarians were aggressively draining, massaging and medicating the swellings and administering antibiotics to treat a staph infection in the abscess above the tail. But it was stubborn.

According to the notes from May 30, “Our efforts seem to be slowing down the progress of the abscess but are not resolving it.” By June 1, the swelling on Gita’s right hip had grown, and by June 5 there was another swelling on her backside.

By June 9, the day before her death, the records comment on the tail abscess and the right hip swelling: “In general these seem to be progressing well at this time.” But Gita had also developed more swelling on her hind legs and underside. And that was getting worse.

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Through all this, her left front foot appeared to continue to heal from the surgery, but on June 3, due to her “agitated disposition,” she would not let keepers administer antibiotics to that foot.

“Think of those wounds on her rear like bedsores,” said Richardson. “That’s my opinion, reading the records.”

Richardson, who had seen but never medically examined Gita, said he believed she was “in a poor condition. If she’s leaning against the bars, she’s trying to get the weight off her front end.”

Lewis cautioned against reading the records “in a vacuum” and said of Richardson: “He’s making diagnoses without examining the animals.”

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But Lewis did not deny that Gita had problems with abscesses and swelling.

Richardson and Lewis agree on one thing: Gita probably balked at taking more intravenous antibiotics because she was just sick of the process. “We had this older elephant,” said Lewis. “She had gone through a fairly serious treatment for months and tolerated it.... She said, ‘I’ve been doing this for months, folks, and I’m kind of tired.’ ”


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