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When I was 16 or 17, I jumped in Big Arky's exhibit to rescue a live rat that had been thrown in for dinner.
Arky, as older Little Rock natives know, was a 13-foot alligator kept in a concrete pool surrounded by a low concrete wall inside a WPA building at the zoo. The pool was not much larger than Arky and, if I recall correctly, was dry.
To a teen-ager without much sense, Arky didn't look particularly menacing — he almost never moved. He was more an exhibit than a living animal. The warm-blooded and frisky rat, on the other hand, looked like he needed rescuing. Like he didn't belong. So I picked him up by the tail and freed him.
My sympathies were misplaced. I should have been thinking alligators are dangerous, and why is this creature stuck in this concrete pool instead of a nice river with mud and room to swim? But I was used to seeing Arky that way. And the zoo wasn't a place that taught much about life in the wild.
But today, wildlife biologists have joined up with zookeepers to introduce humane treatment and make sure zoo displays are educational rather than entertaining. Right?
Not exactly. Animal rights advocates across the nation say the zoos have still got it wrong when it comes to the biggest land mammal: the elephant. They say elephants suffer in zoos because of lack of space and resulting foot and skeletal problems. They say an effort by an American Zoo and Aquarium group, the National Elephant Center, to create an elephant research center in the hills of north Central Arkansas will bring their battle to Little Rock if the center puts zoo priorities over the animals' emotional and physical well-being.
Not surprisingly, people affiliated with the AZA counter that the activists don't understand elephants and that their furor is fueled by emotion rather than science.
But the activists' claims have provoked an emotional response from the zoo side, too: The usually politic Little Rock Zoo Director Michael Blakely, asked last week if it were true the AZA wanted to breed baby elephants to increase zoo revenues, exclaimed an irritated “bullshit.”
But the AZA does want to increase the elephant population, for conservation reasons, the organization says, and it is negotiating to buy the 320-acre Riddle's Elephant Sanctuary in Greenbrier for $3.6 million.
That sum, opponents say, would be better spent on improving the lives of elephants in zoos. The Elephant Center board is hoping some of that money will come from the state of Arkansas and The Elephant Center's 10 founding institutions. Blakely, the head of a city department that cost nearly $4 million to run in 2006 and posted a budget deficit of nearly $344,000, is a member of the founding board.
Blakely declines to talk about the elephant center purchase because of a confidentiality agreement he and others on the National Elephant Center board signed to protect the Riddles' business interests. However, because he discussed the elephant center idea with the Little Rock Zoo's board of governors, documents on the sale in the zoo's possession are public documents and were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Arkansas Times. (Blakely said he may resign from the Elephant Center board because of the FOI.)
The plans, which Blakely notes are only a draft, call for buying 320 acres of the 330 acres Scott and Heidi Riddle own, their buildings and equipment and the 13 elephants now kept there. The group would pay $800,000 immediately and the rest over seven years.
The Riddles, who have operated the elephant refuge since 1990, would work with the Elephant Center for five months after the sale under contract. The continued involvement of Scott Riddle, a controversial figure in both zoo and animal rights communities for his management techniques, is also a point of contention by opponents.
The Riddles did not answer calls from the Arkansas Times. They've been quoted in press reports as saying they are ready to retire and want to see their work, which includes breeding, continue.
Running an elephant refuge isn't cheap. There's a staff to pay and bills for veterinarian services, maintenance and feed. The sanctuary's income tax report for 2005, the most recent available, showed it had expenses of $392,563 and revenues of $314,167, for a deficit of $78,396, but that it ended the year with $430,929 in assets.
The buyout plan lists the state of Arkansas, along with federal and grant sources, as a potential funder and says Blakely believes he can raise a total of $500,000 from Arkansas sources.
Any business plan that relies on support from the state of Arkansas seems a little iffy. However, a $2.4 million zoo appropriation bill passed in the state House of Representatives last week includes $100,000 for elephant support, which could go to the Elephant Center, Blakely said.
Blakely insists that that the elephants at the Little Rock zoo are happy, healthy and, importantly, “ambassadors for conservation.” Their presence helps raise awareness about their endangered status in the wild and boosts funding for elephant research and preservation.
Blakely referred all questions about the National Elephant Center, which still awaits its non-profit designation from the IRS, to fellow board member John Lehnhardt, animal operations director at Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park and vice chair of the AZA elephant taxon advisory group's species survival plan.
But should predictions of protest come true, Blakely will be the one in the line of fire. He's ready to take protesters on, and so is his board. “I've been through the fight before,” said City Director Brad Cazort, referring to the “Save Ellen” campaign to send the zoo's high profile elephant resident to a sanctuary.
Cazort is credited with getting the zoo back on its feet after it lost its USDA license and AZA accreditation in the 1990s. He said animal rights people who want elephants removed from zoos “will just turn around and pick another” animal species to target for release if they prevail with elephants.
Cazort and zoo board of governors head George Mallory said the zoo's small conservation fund of $10,000 to $15,000 a year might be a source of support of the Elephant Center. Managing Elephant Center members will be asked to kick in $10,000 a year to the center; sponsoring members' $5,000. The AZA's goal is to get all of its accredited facilities to contribute.
There is little common ground, if any, between those who exhibit elephants and those who study them in the wild. In between are the people who go to zoos, who make their judgments on gut feelings. Most of the readers of this article fall in that group. Among them are people for whom zoos are a guilty pleasure. They thrill to seeing wild animals even while feeling it's probably wrong to keep them — with the exception, perhaps, of the reptiles — captive.
Before I was bombarded with facts and viewpoints from the AZA and retired zoo personnel and animal rights people, I was one of those happily uninformed people who could shove common sense aside long enough to indulge a desire to see sloth bears and giraffes and gorillas (including the latest addition to the zoo, baby Moki) and, yes, elephants.
I'm still a zoo lover, though the effort to suspend a sense that it's not kosher to keep big wild animals in little, sometimes grim, places is harder to tamp down.
At any rate, I know in my bones — literally, as a woman whose future ability to stand up straight rests on whether I get exercise and lift weights now — that a 10,000-pound creature that has evolved to travel many miles a day, every day, resting only a few hours in the night, is unlikely to live the healthiest life in a pen limited to, say, the footprint of a house in the Heights, no matter what zookeepers say.
But the elephants at the Little Rock Zoo, both 56-year-old Asian females, did look healthy and happy when I joined them on their early morning walk with keeper Britt Thompson last week.
Ellen, 56, has lived at the zoo since 1954, the same year her companion, Ruth, came. When Ruth died in 1978 Ellen trumpeted in grief, the Arkansas Gazette reported at the time. Ellen lived alone for 22 years until she was joined by Mary, a retired circus elephant, at the zoo in 2001.
Blakely, who was hired in 1999, initially wanted to “surplus” Ellen (move her to another facility) because she was living alone, a cruel situation for a social animal who in the wild lives with a herd of other females. But Thompson, who had just come to Little Rock from the Denver Zoo, and Mark Shaw, now zoo curator, convinced Blakely they could make an elephant exhibit work. The enclosure was enlarged (it now includes a 1,000-square-foot barn, a 5,000-square-foot dirt yard and a 10,000-square-foot exercise yard, in excess of AZA guidelines), Thompson initiated the daily walks, and negotiations for Mary began.
Thompson said Ellen is healthy and happier at 56 than she was nine years ago. She's thinner — only 6,450 pounds at her last weigh-in — but she's more muscular. Her eyes are bright again, she wags her tail and she does not keep her head down, all signs, Thompson said, of a happy elephant. She's said to be inquisitive and eager to learn new things. (Elephants are the smartest creatures on four legs, and all that stuff about never forgetting is apparently true.) Mary, who was injured by another elephant and has a slight limp, and who lived in a rail car most of her life, weighs 10,600 pounds and is more focused on food, her keeper says. When it's warm and dry, the elephants are not locked in their barn at night but allowed to go in and out, which means they don't have to stand in their feces and urine, one of the causes of foot problems.
As we talked both elephants were allowed to wander far from their keepers over a large grassy area to forage. They whorled short green weeds with their trunks and ate them; Mary scratched her back on a tree. When zoo opening time rolled around and they had to return to their enclosure, Thompson yelled across the green from maybe 90 yards away, “Ellen!” She turned, looked at him and slowly came back to him and her pen. “Would an unhappy elephant do that?” he asked.
I don't know the answer to that.
Ellen and Mary will have one or two new companions by the end of the year. Blakely said it would provide a more natural situation for the aging females; a total of $150,000 from the city will help enlarge the enclosure again, build a splash pool and expand the elephant barn. Blakely, like most zoo professionals, says elephants don't need as much space as they do in the wild because they don't need to forage for food.
But the zoo will need even more room when the AZA puts into effect a rule that zoos with elephant exhibits must house a bull elephant.
Confined bulls present a new challenge. These enormously strong animals can be aggressive and unpredictable when they go into mating season. Which is why the zoo is so eager to attain the now-vacant Ray Winder Field.
Why the new rule on bulls? Because successful breeding will increase the male population, which in turn helps breeding. (Today, males represent only a small percentage of the captive population.)
The AZA wants to breed elephants to halt a predicted decline in the North American population. According to demographic studies done in 2005 for the AZA, if breeding doesn't become more successful, the number of Asians would decline from 145 to 75, and Africans 150 to 79, in the next 30 years. To sustain the current population, an average of 19 new babies must be born each year over that period — more to sustain the population of females.
But captive elephants breed poorly, and their infants don't fare well. (Chicago's Lincoln Zoo lost all three of its elephants in recent years, two of them infants imported from Swaziland.) Females quit cycling earlier than their sisters in the wild and may lack the muscle tone required to carry the fetus during their two-year pregnancy.
The AZA isn't readily forthcoming with the numbers, but according to various sources (including Smithsonian magazine and an In Defense of Animals analysis of AZA studbooks) only 13 of the 20 elephants born at AZA zoos since 2003 survive today. Previous records show a 41 percent mortality rate among Asian elephants and 50 percent among Africans since captive breeding began in the 1950s.
Lehnhardt, the Elephant Center spokesman, said the survival rate among babies of first-time mothers is only 50 percent. Still-births are high; a herpes virus is to blame for perhaps half the deaths. Mother elephants are lost as well as babies in the process.
The hope is that the Elephant Center's physical layout and research opportunities will turn the poor numbers around.
Zookeepers answer critics of the breeding program by noting that baby elephants die in the wild as well. They claim that because of poachers and war in unstable African regions, elephants live longer in captivity. That may or may not be true (it's one of the myriad points of disagreement among the zoo and animal rights communities), but it hardly matters: A long life does not equate with a happy one. A fact that zoo keepers can't argue with is the pervasive foot problems that captive elephants endure. Walking on concrete and other packed-down surfaces, standing in their own waste and getting inadequate exercise contribute to serious and painful foot pad infections and cracked or abscessed toenails that require daily attention to prevent or heal.
Ruth Scroggin of Jonesboro is an elephant welfare activist who knows many of the captive elephants in the U.S. by name and can recite some terrible facts, about the baby elephants Ricardo, who fell off a ball and had to be euthanized, and Kedar, who died after nearly drowning in a pool. And Clara, 54, who was euthanized by the St. Louis Zoo because of continuing foot infections that required her to wear special sandals and who was in what one veterinarian said was obvious pain. Scroggin has good news too: The Los Angeles Zoo has sent Ruby, an African elephant, to retirement at the Performing Animal Welfare Society's Sanctuary in San Andreas. The L.A. Zoo isn't getting out of the elephant business, though — it plans to build a new elephant habitat, to the tune of $39 million.
Scroggin said the AZA minimum for elephant exhibits — 1,800 square feet — was the equivalent “to putting an 80-pound Labrador in a tiny bathroom. He's going to have food, water, even a Frisbee, but he's still living in a bathroom.”
Scroggin, an animal cruelty investigator in Jonesboro for eight years, said the Little Rock Zoo was less than accommodating when she sought information about the Elephant Center and other information, including medical records. (The city attorney finally required the records be released.) She said Little Rock “is poised to be ground zero in the national debate over the welfare of captive elephants.”
The Detroit Zoo is on 125 acres. It provides four acres, a 300,000-gallon pool of chilled “seawater” and air-conditioned rocks for its polar bears. But it has no elephants.
“Zoos are really the experts in animal care,” director Ron Kagan said in an interview last week, “but no matter how hard we tried we couldn't overcome the challenges” of keeping healthy elephants. It decided in 2004 to send its two females, Winky and Wanda, to a sanctuary. The move could have cost Detroit its AZA accreditation, but Kagan stood his ground and resisted moving the elephants to other zoos.
Detroit is one of eight U.S. zoos, including the San Francisco Zoo, that have decided to close their elephant exhibits. The Bronx Zoo will close its when its elephants die. Four zoos in Great Britain — including the London Zoo and the Edinburgh Zoo — no longer keep elephants.
“Life in the wild is not a picnic,” Kagan said, “but we still want to be sure there's good quality of life in captivity.” In the wild, elephants live in large social groups and walk for many miles a day. “They make their own decisions,” Kagan said, “about what they do and when and how they do it.”
Their acre at the Detroit Zoo didn't allow their two elephants to live that way, and it wasn't just because the elephants had to be cooped up when snow or ice made their movement risky that Kagan decided to move them. “They had the same problems [elephants have everywhere] ... foot problems, psychological problems.” Captive elephants often sway and rock, he said, a sign that indicates stress. (Kagan is one of the few zoo experts who agree with zoo opponents that swaying is not healthy elephant behavior.)
“They really do need to walk,” he said. “When they stand too long their joints deteriorate.”
Kagan wants the “zoo community” to pool its resources and develop sanctuaries for elephants “and, frankly, for other animals.”
“It's not whether zoos are good or bad. In my view, elephants are very unique and difficult” to keep in captivity.
Instead, Kagan said, putting elephants in a “large, naturalistic environment, in theory, is sound.”
A video, “From Animal Showboat to Animal Lifeboat,” on the Detroit Zoo's website is a frank depiction of how zoos have erred and what improvements have been made. It opens with a warning: “This film contains some images of animals suffering. It may not be suitable for young children.” Kagan was the executive producer.
So why not turn Riddle's Elephant Sanctuary into a true sanctuary — a place where elephants can live as they do in the wild, make mud holes and push trees over and roam across acres of earth? Les Schobert, who was in the zoo business for 30 years, acting as curator for both the Los Angeles and North Carolina zoos, said it's an idea whose time has come.
“Zoos need to get on the other end of the curve” and think elephant zoo instead of zoo elephant, he said in an interview from Palm Springs.
“There's two things that Arkansas has going for it,” Schobert said: climate “and 300 acres,” the size of the Riddles' sanctuary (though only 35 acres are fenced currently). But the questions he has about The National Elephant Center are these: How long will the babies get to stay with their mothers? In the wild they stay for years, if not their life; males stay for six to 10 years. “If you put a bunch of elephants together and then rip them apart, then you miss the concept of socialization.”
Too, he wonders if the management style will be hands-on — which requires humans to take a dominant stance, helped along by the bullhook and chain — or use “protected contact” with a barrier between handler and trainer and the use of positive reinforcement. He advocates the latter.
Will building the Elephant Center take money that could be used to improve existing zoo enclosures? Will the animals be “shoveled in and out like a sofa around the country”? Rather than a sanctuary, what the AZA is proposing with the elephant center “sounds more like a kennel.”
Schobert isn't on that slippery slope that would, as city director Cazort fears, pull other animals out of the zoo along with the elephants. “I have no species that's next,” he said.
Schobert points to the small and isolated great ape exhibits found in zoos in the 1950s and 1960s. “They weren't breeding and weren't doing well. Then we put them in large social groups and gave them room and the population took off. I believe that's where we are with elephants.”
Schobert said people would never be able to look at an elephant in a zoo again if they could see them in the various sanctuaries in the U.S., like the PAWS refuges in California and the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.
It will be the zoo-going public that ultimately decides, Schobert said. “This issue is now a huge national issue. It's not localized to any one facility, but now it's come to Arkansas.”