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August 29th, 2001 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

Free the elephants!

Problems plague the Oregon Zoo's pachyderms

     
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The largest captive land mammal in North America ducks under the doorway. Behind him, a hydraulic steel door wheezes, then slams shut. Packy is isolated, but he is not alone. Outside the cage, attired in work boots and a blue polo shirt, Bob Lee crouches on a stool. Through the steel bars, Packy offers up his foot, and Lee goes to work. He is an elephant pedicurist.

With a steel file known as a rasp, Lee seesaws back and forth on the elephant's toenails. He has to be at once forceful, to remove excess nail that could cause overgrowth, and gentle enough not to abrade the sensitive area.

The white shavings that flutter to the concrete floor look like freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Lee examines the fleshy area around the nails, checking for debris or urine and fecal matter, which can collect in the cracks between the toes and cause infection. Lee also searches for new splits in the ridged, opaque keratin. If he finds a serious one, he cross-hatches it, relieving the pressure so that the fissure does not spread. He checks the cuticles for excess growth. With a curved knife used by farriers, he slices off pieces from the convex center of the pad, as if peeling rind from a melon.

The process can take an hour per foot. Even then, it is never entirely finished. Each one of the zoo's seven elephants must have regular pedicures; sometimes the work cannot be completed in one sitting.

All animals at the Oregon Zoo require care and attention, but none commands the daily, hands-on treatment elephants receive. Captive elephants are necessarily high-maintenance, but they give as good as they get. In the zoo's parade of animals, elephants are the grand marshals.

Most zoos have mascots, animals that for some reason capture the imagination of their cities' residents and in turn become ambassadors for the zoo--and its fundraising efforts. In San Diego, it's pandas. At the Bronx Zoo, it's gorillas. At the Oregon Zoo, it's elephants--particularly the photogenic babies that have been born over the years. The birth of a baby can easily bring in an additional 25,000 to 30,000 visitors, a blessing to the zoo's marketing department.

Viewed in a different light, the zoo's dependence on elephants could be something of a curse. A growing number of animal experts are voicing the opinion that if there is one animal that doesn't belong in the zoo, it's the elephant.

Earlier this year, for example, the London Zoo, which has kept elephants since 1831, moved them to a countryside range. Just last year, the Henry Villas Zoo in Madison, Wisc., announced that it would remove its elephants, Winkie and Penny. The Los Angeles Zoo is also working on a plan to send an Asian female, Calle, to a refuge.

Even the animals' keepers have broken rank to speak out against captivity. "We don't think that elephants can be kept humanely in zoos," says Richard Farinato, a former keeper who is now director of the captive-wildlife program for the Humane Society of the United States.

For a city like Portland, which prides itself on civility, its concern for all creatures large and small, these charges are troubling. For the Oregon Zoo, which attracts 1.3 million visitors a year--the most popular ticketed tourist attraction in the state--and pumps nearly $900,000 annually into the coffers of Metro, the regional government, it is a threat to its very identity. To Tony Vecchio, the conservation-minded director who has managed the zoo's $26 million organization since 1998, the beasts are a headache, at least. "Elephants are challenging," Vecchio allows, with characteristic, almost comic understatement.

Elephants may be big, but nowhere are they bigger than in Portland. The reason dates to 1962, when a 225-pound pachyderm was born in a dank barn in what was then called the Washington Park Zoo. Packy made the cover of Life magazine, the first elephant born in captivity in North America in 44 years. A star was born. Twenty more baby elephants followed. The zoo earned bragging rights for having the most successful breeding program of any zoo in the world. It is a record no one has ever matched.

Elephants are thus the Oregon Zoo's money shot. Packy's birthday, in April, is always a popular celebration. This year, 2,000 visitors showed up for the public party, where he ate his customary cake of fruit and peanut butter. The zoo also held a more exclusive $90-per-person fundraiser, with a tasting of a "packydram" of scotch (like Packy, 40 years old), followed by glasses of Full Sail's "'Packy Porter." The tasting, together with the sale of Packy T-shirts by KeyBank and special promos by McCormick & Schmick's and Rodda Paint, raised more than $38,000.

Even new elephant manager April Yoder, who joined the zoo in January, was blown away by the popularity of Portland's pachyderms. "The biggest thing I noticed, from the second I got here, is the community support for the elephants. I've never seen anything like it before," says Yoder, an earnest, ponytailed woman in work boots and khaki shorts. "Thousands of people come to Packy's birthday every year. One lady comes every year. They stopped baseball game at PGE park to sing 'Happy Birthday' to Packy," she gushes. "It's amazing."

Retail sales, such as zoo keys in the shape of elephant heads and Packy lollipops, generate roughly $1.2 million per year. A portrait of Packy is painted on the side of a brick building overlooking the Burnside Bridge. Several stories high and framed in roses, the city's unofficial mascot looms larger, even, than in real life.

It's not surprising then, that the Oregon Zoo doesn't spend a whole lot of time debating the virtues of its elephant exhibit. Elsewhere, however, zoos are beginning to question the wisdom of keeping the largest land mammal behind bars.

These beasts may be simply too large to be properly confined in a zoo, too emotionally sensitive to endure changing social structures, or too delicate to withstand the glare of thousands of human onlookers. Whatever the reason, it is clear elephants suffer from a variety of problems that other zoo animals simply don't experience.

For many elephants, captivity is a pain in the foot. Elephants can walk 20 to 30 miles a day in the wild, aggressively digging as they forage for food, and thereby wearing down their nails and foot pads. Zoo elephants are in a double bind. They don't walk as much as their counterparts in the wild, while at the same time, the superior nutrition they receive seems to increase the rate of foot pad and nail growth.

As a result, captive elephants are prone to chronic foot ailments--abscesses, lesions and infections collectively known as "foot rot"--that can prove fatal, cutting short the expected life span of an elephant. Captive elephants can live be 60 years old. In 1996, Me-Tu, a female, was euthanized because of foot problems. She was only 33. A year later, Belle, Packy's mother, had to be euthanized after foot lesions spread to her bones. She was 45.

Roger Henneous, who spent nearly 30 years as an elephant keeper at the zoo before retiring four years ago, says he felt responsible for Belle's death. "I suspect it's the height of vanity to think that way, but I did," he says. "I kept thinking if I was worth a shit I could find a fix [for foot problems], and there wasn't any. It's yet to be found."

Among the zoo's herd of seven, two have foot problems. One of them, Pet, the herd's 47-year-old matriarch, is given 21 800-milligram tablets of Ibuprofen twice a day for pain caused by her pigeon-toed condition and arthritis. Her feet are soaked for 20 minutes each day in Novalsan, an antiseptic solution, and her condition is discussed weekly at the zoo's animal-husbandry meeting.

Mike Keele, the zoo's assistant director, says the zoo's current strategy is to manage and prevent foot problems, not cure them. There's no science to suggest that elephants' feet are necessarily any worse off than in the wild, he says. Keele expects that recent advances in foot care and diagnostics, as well as improved zoo conditions, will greatly improve the foot health of future generations of captive elephants, though he doubts such ailments will ever be eliminated. "I think there will continue to be foot disease and that some elephants will die from that. I'm hoping the incidents will be greatly reduced."

Former circus trainer Carol Buckley disagrees. "Foot rot is the No. 1 killer of Asian elephants in captivity," says Buckley, founder of the Elephant Sanctuary. "They are standing; they are not walking 30 miles a day. They're standing on unnaturally hard surfaces that are contaminated as the elephants defecate and urinate. They develop foot problems that become chronic." Buckley says that simply treating the symptoms of foot disease is inadequate. She recommends something more dramatic: releasing them to sanctuaries like her 222-acre range in Hohenwald, Tenn. The sanctuary is currently home to six female Asian elephants, including Winkie, who was released from the Henry Villas Zoo in Madison, Wisc.

Henneous is hesitant to agree that sanctuaries like Buckley's would solve the problem, yet he concedes efforts to control the diseases were largely unsuccessful. "We jumped on every bit of technology, thinking it was going to improve things. And in some cases it did, but the fact of the matter is the foot problems dogged us from 15 years into it, 'til I was gone. We just never recovered from there."

This criticism has been trumped by the Oregon Zoo's success breeding elephants, and by the positive publicity those births generated. Breeding is one factor used in evaluating the well-being of captive animals. In this regard, the Oregon Zoo has had a remarkable record. After Packy, the zoo produced 20 more elephants; many of those went on to breed successfully at other zoos.

What is less well known is that in recent years the program has not fared so well. It has been nine years since the last successful birth at the Oregon Zoo, Rose-Tu.

The dry spell is a concern for zoo administrators; it rests most heavily on the shoulders of Keele. In addition to his job as assistant director, he is the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's North American studbook keeper for Asian elephants. He is in charge of documenting all captive, exhibited Asian elephants on the continent. It is a position that seems to fit his penchant for meticulousness: neatly trimmed mustache, organized desk. Whereas he used to shovel dung out the barn, Keele now spends most of his day in meetings and offices, his hands clean. He is something of an anomaly; though steeped in the milieu of breeding and research, he is not a scientist. With his polo shirts buttoned to the top and his words carefully chosen, however, he could pass for one.

Elephant breeding, Keele explains, is a logistical puzzle. It requires the right elephants at the right time. They have to like each other, and the zoo has to have the room to house the offspring in the long term. Bulls can be a liability, as they have to be housed separately. "Our problem," Keele says, "is we have three spaces for bulls, and they are full."

Meanwhile, the zoo is facing a deadline. Of the Oregon Zoo's four females, one, Pet, suffers from foot problems too severe to allow her to withstand a pregnancy. Another, Chendra, is too young. The ideal candidate is Sung-Surin (Sunshine), who, at 19 years old, must contend with her biological clock; if females don't give birth by age 25, they typically won't have offspring at all. "It's time for her to be mom," Keele says of Sung-Surin. "The window is closing."

If Sung-Surin gives birth, the advantages will be twofold. Not only will she reinvigorate the zoo's breeding program, but her motherhood will provide an essential role model for the younger females, Rose-Tu and Chendra, both of whom would add new DNA to America's captive-elephant gene pool. If cows don't learn mothering behavior, they often kill their offspring or fail to nurse.

The zoo's most famous male also presents a fertility problem. With one testicle atrophied, Packy is no longer the young stud he used to be, Keele says, and may even be sterile. Ironically, the elephant that started it all is now taking up valuable space. "In an ideal situation for the breeding strategy, we would move out Packy," says Keele. Politically, he acknowledges, that's an impossibility. "Packy really is symbolic," he says, "not only to Portland but nationally and internationally for breeding elephants in captivity."

In recent years, the Oregon Zoo has also experienced a great number of failed pregnancies, many of which were the product of mates that were related. Keele acknowledges that inbreeding was responsible for some of these deaths. For example, Hanako, who has since been shipped to the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, was twice impregnated by Packy, her half-brother. Neither baby survived.

"Hanako kept having weird ones: hearing defects, brain problems," recalls Keele. "Not much is known about inbreeding. It was naive in that it was all brand-new."

These problems, the deaths due to foot rot and the failure to breed in almost a decade, have not gone unnoticed at the zoo. In fact, there is a handful of critics, including keeper Phil Pruitt, who grumble among themselves about the program's shortcomings.

Pruitt, a self-professed zoo watchdog who sometimes cleans the elephant barn at night, says few people feel comfortable criticizing a program that is seen as so successful. "It's almost lunacy to voice a negative opinion of this zoo in this town. And the inner sanctum?" he says, referring to the elephant barn. "No way."

Earlier this month, during a tour of the zoo, director Vecchio considered the charges that foot problems and difficulties breeding diminish the zoo's elephant program. Vecchio, a placid, soft-spoken man with a hangdog expression, has a reputation for playing devil's advocate when it comes to elephants. For the past several years, he has taught a class for elephant handlers at the American Zoological Association's former headquarters in Wheeling, W.V. "I've gotten the reputation as the guy who teaches the class on why we shouldn't have elephants in zoos," he says.

Students are outraged by his provocation: " I usually get one or two threats. A few really lose their temper. That has always been a very passionate class."

Vecchio asks students to consider what they're doing when they confine such enormous animals to zoos, particularly given that captive-born elephants will never be released into the wild. "We don't have humpback whales in captivity, because we can't replicate the wild conditions," he says. "I make the argument that we have [elephants in zoos] because visitors expect them. Elephants aren't living the same life as they would in the wild," he says, "No zoo animal is. The decision is, can we provide enough to make their lives comfortable, worthwhile, enriched?"

Despite the many obstacles, Vecchio believes the answer is yes. He concludes that zoos not only can provide such an environment but must do so. The exhibition of elephants is essential to the survival of the species, he says.

"Until you look that animal in the eye," Vecchio insists, "you can't care."

Even so, Vecchio acknowledges that it's a long shot. Visitors are largely distracted and indifferent. Studies show they won't even begin to read blocks of text longer than 35 words. The zoo's elephant museum gives the history of the species and explains the threat of extinction, but on recent visits it was nearly empty. Education--the linchpin to conservation-- is extremely difficult.

"We're getting there," says Vecchio, wearily. "When I look back over the past 10 years, we're getting there."

But even he doesn't sound like he believes it.


The job of elephant keeper is often cited as the most dangerous occupation in America. Morgan Berry, who provided what was then called the Washington Park Zoo with its very first elephants, was killed by one of his own elephants in 1979.

 

 

 

Elephants learn quickly and, true to the stereotype, have long memories. They form lifelong bonds with their herd.

 

 

 

Chendra, the zoo's newest elephant, was rescued from Malaysia in 1999 using funds provided by Enron.

 

 

 

All the elephants at the Oregon Zoo are Asian, as opposed to African. Asians have smaller ears and tusks.

 

 

 

Packy's birth provided researchers with a crucial bit of information--the gestation period for elephants. It is 22 months.

 

 

 

Keeper Fred Marion was fired in April 2000 for beating a young female elephant, Rose-Tu, with an ankus (a metal-tipped prod) and inserting it into her rectum.

 

 

 

Eric Scigliano discusses the Oregon Zoo's elephant program in his new book, Love War and Circuses: The Age-old Relationship Between Humans and Elephants. He'll read at 7:30 pm Thursday, Sept. 26, at Twenty-third Avenue Books.

 

 

 

In 1999, the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., became the first zoo to successfully breed an elephant using artificial insemination. The Oregon Zoo's attempts at AI have been unsuccessful.

 

 

 

Dr. Dennis Schmidt, former head veterinarian at the Oregon Zoo, documented the estrus cycle for Asian elephants, an advance that greatly improved the chances of captive breeding.

 

 

 

The Elephant Sanctuary takes only Asian females, but Riddle's Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary in Greenbriar, Ark., and Performing Animal Welfare Society, in Galt, Calif., take both Asian and African elephants of both genders.

 
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