Dirty Dealings:
The Truth Behind the Vote on the Topeka Zoo's Elephants

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Dirty Dealings:
The Truth Behind the Vote on the Topeka Zoo's Elephants

By Catherine Doyle, In Defense of Animals (IDA)
March 2010

Despite the fact that no zoo that has sent an elephant to a sanctuary has ever lost its accreditation, he threatened the council with that action, ominously adding that, without AZA accreditation, no more animals would ever come to the zoo. But his most unconscionable threat was directed at the Topeka zoo’s gorilla, Tiffany, who was left alone after her cage-mate, M’Bili died last year from an aortic aneurysm, at least according to disgraced Topeka Zoo director Mike Coker. Reed warned the council that the zoo would never be able to bring in another gorilla as a companion for Tiffany and that she would “die alone.”

On Tuesday, the Topeka City Council voted to continue keeping ailing elephants Sunda and Tembo in their inadequate exhibit at the Topeka Zoo. A special work session to discuss retiring the elephants to a sanctuary had been scheduled to follow the meeting, but political forces opposed to making a decision before a new zoo director is hired had conspired to force an immediate vote.

Contributing to their efforts was Sedgwick County Zoo (Kansas) director Mark Reed, who showed the Association of Zoos and Aquarium's (AZA) true colors when it comes to the welfare of animals and protecting the trade association’s sovereignty over zoos and their elephants. (Reed is also a past-chair of the National Elephant Center, a breeding and temporary holding facility to be built in Florida. Think he’s mad that the St. Lucie County Commission said they can’t use bullhooks there? Reed’s own zoo does, as evidenced by the video below.) During a 20-mintue red-faced rant, he bullied, threatened and lied to the city council, saying that moving Tembo and Sunda to a sanctuary would “destroy the zoo.”

What he meant was that AZA would take down the zoo and make an example of it for any other zoo that wants to do the right thing for its elephants. Despite the fact that no zoo that has sent an elephant to a sanctuary has ever lost its accreditation, he threatened the council with that action, ominously adding that, without AZA accreditation, no more animals would ever come to the zoo. But his most unconscionable threat was directed at the Topeka zoo’s gorilla, Tiffany, who was left alone after her cage-mate, M’Bili died last year from an aortic aneurysm, at least according to disgraced Topeka Zoo director Mike Coker. Reed warned the council that the zoo would never be able to bring in another gorilla as a companion for Tiffany and that she would “die alone.”

We already know that the AZA would rather see an animal suffer in substandard conditions than appear to capitulate to those who truly have the animals’ best interests at heart. But to make such a heinous and cruel threat about Tiffany, with obvious relish, is a new low even for AZA. Apparently, AZA and Reed have no qualms about condemning a highly intelligent and social animal to solitary confinement for the rest of her life, in order to punish a zoo that would want to do right by their own elephants.

But there’s more skullduggery. City Manager Norton Bonaparte had invited captive wildlife consultant and veterinarian Dr. Mel Richardson, who has worked with elephants for more than 30 years, to examine and assess Tembo and Sunda. When Dr. Richardson visited the zoo, he was met by a group he assumed were all employed at the Topeka Zoo. Only at the council meeting was it revealed, by Reed, that two members of the group came from the Sedgwick County Zoo – a veterinarian and curator – though they never identified themselves as such to Dr. Richardson. This type of behavior is underhanded, unethical and unprofessional, especially on the part of veterinarian Bill Bryant.

Predictably, Reed reported that his vet thinks Tembo and Sunda are “fine.” This is what every zoo says about its ailing elephants, up until the time they can no longer stand on their painfully diseased feet and joints and then die. His report directly contradicted information in the Topeka Zoo medical records and Dr. Richardson’s assessment. In fact, both Tembo and Sunda suffer foot disorders, especially Sunda, who has chronic foot disease involving all four feet, information delivered by Dr. Richardson in his report and presentation to city council.

Also invited to speak was Carol Buckley, co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary, who addressed concerns about whether Tembo and Sunda are truly bonded and answered questions relating to the welfare and behavior of animals that had been sent to the sanctuary. According to Buckley, elephants who are truly bonded never harm one another, whereas the Topeka Zoo medical records reveal a history of aggression between the two elephants that has sometimes resulted in injuries.

Representing IDA was elephant campaign director Catherine Doyle who encouraged the city council to listen to facts and not emotional appeals. She urged the council to help the zoo make a fresh start with a focus on animal welfare, by retiring Tembo and Sunda to a sanctuary.

IDA does not consider the campaign for Tembo and Sunda to be over – far from it. We will continue to fight for these elephants, and all elephants living in unnatural and inadequate conditions, and will keep you informed of anything you can do to help them.