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Elephant's death revives cold weather debate

January 31st, 2005, 05:20 PM
CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) -- The memorial service was held outside, with a few mourners, bunches of flowers and a framed photo of the 55-year-old deceased, an elephant named Peaches.

She was the oldest African elephant in an American zoo when she died January 17 at Lincoln Park Zoo. But her death -- which came three months after a younger pachyderm named Tatima died at the zoo -- has renewed complaints from animal-welfare activists that elephants do not belong in cold-weather zoos.

"Peaches and I were very good friends. I'm stunned she's dead. They're saying she died of old age, but she died of the stress of living in Chicago," said Ray Ryan, a former elephant keeper who cared for Peaches, Tatima and Lincoln Park's last remaining elephant, Wankie, when they lived at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Lincoln Park Zoo officials counter that the weather had nothing to do with the elephants' deaths. They say that Tatima, a 35-year-old female, died in October from a non-contagious disease similar to tuberculosis, and that tests, while not yet conclusive, indicate Peaches had kidney and heart conditions.

The three pachyderms were sent to Chicago in 2003 in a move opposed by animal activists, who warned that the elephants would suffer after enjoying the outdoors year round in warm and sunny San Diego.

Elephants in the wild -- especially those in the mountains -- are occasionally faced with freezing weather, and keep warm by huddling together. But most of the time, their habitat is much warmer than the winters in the northern United States. African elephants live on savannas and in woods, mountains and tropical rainforests; Asian elephants in tropical forests.

As for how long elephants can live in the wild, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association says the median lifespan for African females in the wild is 42; animal activists say that if not for poachers, elephants could live decades longer.

Elephants roam for miles every day in the wild, but can develop serious health problems -- including arthritis, sores and infections on the pads of their feet -- when confined to small spaces, often with concrete floors, during much of the winter in colder cities like Chicago, said veterinarian Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals.

Peaches, Tatima and Wankie shared an outdoor yard of 13,000 square feet but were kept in a heated, 3,300-square-foot structure whenever the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, said Kelly McGrath, Lincoln Park Zoo spokeswoman.

Most zoo officials argue that elephants can be kept healthy in cold weather climates. They point out that some animal-welfare groups are opposed to zoos entirely. And they say that keeping elephants in zoos delights visitors and thereby builds vital support for programs that protect elephants in the wild.

William Foster, president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, whose members care for about 300 elephants in North America, said some of the most successful elephant programs in the country are in northern areas -- such as Toronto; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; and Syracuse, New York.

Foster said improvements are continually being made to better care for elephants in captivity, such as building bigger facilities and developing softer floors. A survey of 78 zoo directors found that in the next five years, 40 facilities plan to expand or build new elephant exhibits, Foster said.

"We feel elephants are under peril all over the globe, and their ultimate survival depends on us telling their story correctly," he said.

Several zoos, however, have recently closed their elephant exhibits.

Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan decided last year to move its two aging, arthritic elephants to a Northern California sanctuary, where they can roam for miles and where the average high temperature in January is 58 degrees, compared with 33 in Detroit.

Elephants "are the only animals at the zoo for which there is a great disparity between what they need and what we can provide," Kagan said last year.

Alaska Zoo officials have debated what to do about their African elephant, a resident since 1983 named Maggie. One solution was to build a treadmill to help her get exercise.

A zoo in a more temperate climate, the San Francisco Zoo, decided to close its exhibit after two elephants died there last year. One of the remaining elephants has been sent to the Northern California sanctuary, and the other is being patiently trained to get into a crate to be taken there, said zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan.

The zoo will not be acquiring more elephants for some time -- the city passed an ordinance requiring a 15-acre habitat for any new pachyderms.

"We want to see elephants in San Francisco someday, but only under the right conditions -- in spacious, naturalistic conditions," Chan said.

At Lincoln Park Zoo, the elephant exhibit is also being closed, at least temporarily. Because the animals crave companionship, Wankie cannot be left permanently on her own, and will be sent someplace else within the next few months.

Eventually, the zoo will decide whether to bring in a new group of elephants.

In the meantime, Wankie is being kept company by her trainers, who are giving her more exercise and more time to play with toys. They also brought in a television to keep her entertained, but she quickly grew bored with it.


Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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January 31st, 2005, 05:20 PM
I never really thought about that,how sad.........