Gita, the Los Angeles Zoo's female Asian elephant who had become the focus of a highprofile controversy over whether the giant animals should stay in zoos, died Saturday morning in her yard after several hours of attempts to save her life. Gita, who turned 48 this month, had lived at the zoo since 1959.
Two keepers found Gita about 5 a.m. in the outdoor part of her off-exhibit enclosure, sitting dog-style, with her back legs tucked under her and her front legs outstretched -- a perilous position for the circulatory system of an 8,000-pound animal, according to zoo officials.
A zoo veterinarian, who contended that Gita had completely recovered from a severe foot ailment, said it was a mystery why she was prone.
"Gita has not laid down for years," Stephen Klause, the veterinarian, said after he was called to the zoo.
In the hours after keepers discovered her, Klause and additional staff members tried a variety of attempts to get her to stand. Gita died at 9:40 a.m. after toxins from her muscles flooded her system and caused vascular distress.
The most placid of the zoo's three pachyderms, Gita often was walked around the zoo before opening hours, captivating the staff and startling the monkeys. Bedeviled by years of foot bone disease and arthritis -- as many captive elephants are -- Gita underwent state-of-the-art surgery in September and was declared by the zoo to be healed.
But she also had become a symbol for impassioned animal rights activists who argued that her crippling problems were the result of treading on concrete surfaces in the zoo for years, and that she would never completely recover. (All the zoo's elephants now pad around on soft dirt surfaces.)
With public hearings and demonstrations in front of the zoo, many factions of the city -- activists, zoo staffers, City Council members, the mayor, the public and schoolchildren -- had weighed in repeatedly over the last few years on what should happen to Gita and the other elephants.
In the aftermath of her death, no matter what side of the debate they were on, everyone appeared moved.
"It's a pretty big loss," a jeans-clad John Lewis, director of the zoo, said Saturday afternoon, his voice trembling slightly as he spoke to reporters. He had rushed to the zoo early in the morning.
"It's a loss on several levels -- one for the animal, but particularly for the staff because they've been working so hard on this," he said. "You forget sometimes she was an older animal. This past month we celebrated several important births -- snow leopards, giraffes. But this is a living collection. Along with life comes death."
Lewis said the average lifespan of an Asian elephant is 42 years.
"I know it's very hard for them," Catherine Doyle, an animal rights activist, said of the zoo staff with whom she is usually at odds on elephant management issues. "Unfortunately, this is all too predictable.... For three years, we've been fighting to send the elephants to a sanctuary, and we warned the zoo that unless she was moved from here, she wouldn't be long to live."
Doyle renewed her call for the zoo to retire its surviving elephants -- a 45-year-old African female named Ruby and a 21-year-old Asian bull named Billy -- to a sanctuary where they would have vast expanses to roam. Currently, only the male at the zoo is on exhibit. Gita and Ruby have been off exhibit for a couple of years as the zoo prepares to construct a new pachyderm exhibit. Another longtime zoo resident, a female African elephant named Tara, died of heart failure in late 2004.
Councilman Tom LaBonge, an enthusiastic supporter of the zoo, which is in his district, showed up at the facility when he heard of Gita's death.
"Gita was a beautiful animal -- one of the original animals who walked over from the old zoo," said LaBonge, referring to the procession of elephants in 1966 from the old Griffith Park location to the present zoo. "I visited with her in April. She looked like she was in good spirits."
Gita, who wore a bandage and received intravenous antibiotics to her foot for months, was freed of her dressings and keepers' round-the-clock care early last month. She resumed her leisurely early morning walks around the zoo, accompanied by keepers, before opening hours.
In fact, two staffers -- longtime keeper Jeff Briscoe and a colleague, Vicki Guarnett -- arrived about 5 a.m. Saturday because they intended to take Gita on a walk around the zoo and over to a water pool she enjoyed.
When they couldn't coax her up, Lewis and Klause said, they used wide straps to move her to her side.
"What you want to initially do is get the pressure off the area," Klause said.
After some time, they were able to get her to lie on her left side. "You can't push her over," Klause said. "You want to be able to allow an animal to rest on her side, get some circulation back and then try and get the animal back up."
Other staffers were called, as was the on-duty veterinarian. Lewis arrived at 7 a.m., and Klause arrived half an hour later. Also present was Jennie McNary, the zoo's curator of mammals, and several veterinary technicians.
"Part of the problem in being down for a period of time with a large animal, you get muscle damage. And the muscle gives up toxins, and those toxins get released into the bloodstream," Klause said.
Eventually, the staff tried gingerly to hoist Gita up on her feet.
"She seemed to want to stand with her front legs, but she couldn't get anything going with her hind legs," Lewis said. "It was pretty obvious at that point we had a problem, but we just kept working her and working her. Even after she was down, the most incredible thing I saw was Steve and the other vets and all the staff doing CPR. It takes a massive effort."
The release of the toxins had led to a rapid vascular system breakdown, Klause said. "It literally is 20, 30 seconds," he said. "Her system just shut down."
Klause said that, based on seeing Gita twice a day, her foot appeared to be completely healed. "The big question is: Did she lay down? Did she stumble? I don't know," he said.
Gita's distraught keepers chose to accompany her body as it was taken by truck shortly after her death to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in San Bernardino for a necropsy.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released a statement Saturday expressing sadness over the elephant's death.
"Along with millions of zoo visitors, I had the great pleasure of meeting Gita and was amazed by her majesty, gentleness and friendliness," the mayor said. He also said he was "concerned about the precise cause of death" and called for a "timely and exhaustive necropsy."
Animal rights activists had persuaded Villaraigosa to commission a report on whether the zoo should be allowed to keep elephants at all. The report, released in December, recommended that they go ahead with a new exhibit but at an increased size.