Elephant appeal fails; they must go to Ohio - Zoo director can't send them to sanctuary
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Elephant appeal fails; they must go to Ohio - Zoo director can't send them to sanctuary

November 19, 2004

BY HUGH McDIARMID JR.
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The Detroit Zoo's two elderly, arthritic pachyderms will not spend their golden years together in an elephant sanctuary.

A final appeal to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association was rejected Thursday -- upholding a prior directive that the elephants be moved to the Columbus, Ohio, zoo.

The decision effectively blocks Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan from sending Winky, 51, and Wanda, 45, to one of two U.S. sanctuaries where they would be able to roam hundreds of acres.

Kagan had announced the sanctuary plan in May, declaring that a mounting body of evidence suggests zoo enclosures of any size are inadequate to meet elephants' extraordinary physical, social and intellect needs.

It was a groundbreaking announcement, the first time a major U.S. zoo voluntarily decided to give up elephants primarily on ethical grounds. Widespread praise from the public and animal welfare groups poured into the zoo's Royal Oak offices.

But the committee charged with managing elephants in AZA-accredited institutions disagreed in September, directing Detroit to send Winky and Wanda to Columbus.

Kagan acknowledged Thursday that the denial leaves him in a painted corner. "There don't seem to be any great options," he said.

Among them:

•Send the elephants to Columbus. AZA officials say they'll have more space, a warmer climate and four other elephant companions. But Kagan recoils at the thought, arguing that Columbus uses outdated, inhumane methods involving blows with a sharp-pointed bull hook; does not have soft ground substrate essential to easing arthritis symptoms; has a climate barely warmer than Detroit's, and -- on a per-elephant basis -- has no more room than Detroit.

•Keep the elephants in Detroit. Kagan would need AZA permission, which would stand a good chance of being granted, AZA officials suggested Thursday. But it would put Kagan in the embarrassing position of keeping the elephants in the 1-acre facility that, although it vastly exceeds AZA standards, he has repeatedly declared too small and too cold for them.

•Send both elephants to a sanctuary in defiance of the AZA directive. Since Wanda is owned by the San Antonio Zoo and is on long-term loan to Detroit, that could be a criminal violation. Kagan said Thursday he would not consider this option.

•Send Wanda to Columbus and defy the AZA by sending Winky to a sanctuary. That would open the Detroit Zoo to possible AZA sanctions, including loss of its accreditation. Perhaps more significantly, it would break the strong social bond that has formed between the two elephants -- a psychological blow to both creatures.

Kagan declined Thursday to rule out splitting the pair, but he has said in the past they should stay together.

He said he and zoo staff are discussing what to do: "There are different scenarios within the options you went through," he said. "There may be additional ones, but it would be premature of me to speculate more than that."

Kagan had hoped to send the pair to one of two sanctuaries -- one in Tennessee and the other in California -- both with climate and landscape more close to that of a natural elephant habitat. In the wild, elephants walk up to 30 miles each day. Sanctuary life would help keep Winky's and Wanda's arthritic joints from deteriorating any faster, Kagan said.

Elephants are widely considered to be among the Earth's most intelligent creatures, forming strong social bonds, mourning for their dead and exhibiting a powerful need for mental stimulation.

In captivity, they often live in unnatural climates, develop physical problems -- like chronic arthritis -- and exhibit psychological problems related to boredom and stress.

Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, blamed the AZA decision on politics.

Other zoo directors feared a decision that seemed to support Kagan would imply that their animals were living in substandard conditions, too.

"They're worried about the precedent," Pacelle said. "The whole dynamic is colored by Kagan's assumptions that zoos are not good places for elephants. The AZA politics has trumped animal welfare."

AZA spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said the organization has allowed several elephants to be moved to sanctuaries in the past, but that Columbus was deemed a better choice in the Detroit case. "The activists are trying to drive a wedge between sanctuaries and zoos," she said.

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or mcdiarmid@freepress.com .

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