August 14, 2005
By Mark Weiner, Staff writer
Federal inspectors will conduct a full investigation
of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo's elephant program and its handling
of Kedar, the baby elephant who died Aug. 4 after plunging into
a pool in his exhibit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it decided to do the investigation
after an inspector's initial three-hour visit to the Syracuse zoo
Inspectors will return in the coming weeks to interview zoo staff,
take photos and gather evidence, said Jim Rogers, a spokesman for
USDA's Animal Plant And Health Inspection Service in Washington,
Rogers said he could not discuss specific details of the case. "All
I can say is we're investigating for possible violations of the
Animal Welfare Act," Rogers said.
Both the zoo and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,
a national animal-rights group, requested the initial investigation.
The federal Animal Welfare Act contains more than 100 pages of
rules regulating every aspect of animal
care, from handling to how food is stored, Rogers said.
Anne Baker, the zoo director, said the inspector made some initial
suggestions after the first inspection last week.
"They did say that before the next baby is born, we should
in some way block off the deep end of the pool," Baker said. "But
we had already reached that conclusion ourselves."
Rogers said he could not discuss the results of that visit.
"Until the investigation is over, we don't know what action
we'll be taking if any," Rogers said. "It's not unusual
for an investigation to close with nothing being found."
National elephant experts familiar with the Rosamond Gifford
Zoo at Burnet Park say they are confident the zoo did nothing wrong
in its handling of the 345-pound elephant born July 31. He was
the fifth Asian elephant born at the zoo.
The Syracuse zoo has always complied with standards for elephant
care established in 2001 by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association,
the organization that accredits zoos and wildlife parks in North
America, according to an AZA official.
No baby elephant has drowned in an accredited
zoo or wildlife park in the past, or from
complications that resulted from falling
into a pool, said Mike Keele, chairman
of the AZA Species Survival Program for
elephants, a breeding plan for those in
Keele, who is also deputy director of
the Oregon Zoo in Portland, said most zoos
have some sort of pool for their elephants.
He said the pools have never presented
a hazard to baby elephants, who are naturally
buoyant and good swimmers.
The AZA, in fact, requires that elephants
have regular access to water sources such
as a pool, waterfall, misters, sprinklers
"They interact with water in their
native habitat, so we want to make sure
they have some sort of opportunity to cool
off or bathe themselves," Keele said. "The
point of the feature is to give the animals
some of the same choices they would have
to make in their natural environment."
The Oregon Zoo is North America's most
successful at breeding Asian elephants,
with 27 births since 1962. At that zoo,
elephant babies are routinely given access
under their mother's watch to the zoo's
two pools, Keele said.
"When I heard about (Kedar's death
in) Syracuse I was just stunned," he
said. "Really, the baby should be
able to swim. But if there is a lot of
wave action, that makes it difficult."
Rosamond Gifford Zoo officials say Kedar
initially ran past the protective watch
of other elephants and into the shallow end of the pool.
The four female elephants watching him immediately jumped into the pool in
a frantic effort to pull him out, but in the process pushed the baby to the
10-foot-deep end of the pool, zoo officials said.
Expert: Syracuse zoo great
Keele said he hopes those who blame zookeepers in Syracuse for the death realize
that the zoo has one of the premiere elephant programs in North America. The
Rosamond Gifford Zoo is one of only nine accredited institutions in North America
to care for six or more elephants.
"Syracuse is wonderful," Keele said. "To me, they're an example
that you don't have to be a large zoo to have a big impact on a breeding program."
John Lehnhardt, animal operations director at Disney's Animal Kingdom in
Orlando, Fla., said the Syracuse zoo has helped set the standards that others
follow for elephant care.
"Syracuse isn't a large place, but they've done a great job focusing
on elephants," Lehnhardt said. "It's what made Syracuse one of the
most successful breeding programs."
Lehnhardt, who oversees all animal care at Disney's Animal Kingdom, including
its 10 African elephants, said he sees nothing wrong with how Kedar was handled.
"What Syracuse was doing is exactly what we do," he said. "It
was just a freak accident. We found you have to move as quickly as possible
with these calves to introduce them to their environment and make sure they
He added, "Once the calf is introduced to the whole herd, those babies
are dependent on the mothers to look after them."
Disney's Animal Kingdom has a 2-year-old male and 1-year-old female living
at a seven-acre exhibit that includes three pools up to 12-feet-deep and a
Lehnhardt said the staff treats each baby and mother differently in deciding
when they will gain access to those pools.
"There's no general rule and it varies from institution to institution," he
said. "In the wild, literally on the first day you can see the calves
up and swimming with the rest of the herd."
At the Disney park, keepers simply let mothers decide when it is safe for
a baby to enter the water.
"We have watched the mothers keep the babies from going in the water," Lehnhardt
said. "The mothers understand what isn't a good place to go."
Nicole Meyer, an elephant specialist for PETA in Norfolk, Va., said keepers
also have a responsibility to make sure there are no potential hazards in the
"There's also logic that should be used with baby elephants," Meyer
said. "When you have a baby elephant and a deep pool, you should take
precautions to make sure they are protected."