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Giant battle 

Elephant breeding in Arkansas causes a stir.

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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.)

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