USDA to Investigate Baby Elephant's Death in Syracuse

August 14, 2005
The Post-Standard
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 Tuesday.

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, D.C

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.

First drowning

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 North America.

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 or wallow.

"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 adapt. "

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 wallow.

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 zoo.

"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."

 

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