Topeka Zoo Should Retire Elephants
2010-02-09

The Topeka Capital-Journal
By James Carlson

An animal advocacy group in Kansas and a city councilman are ramping up a push to retire the Topeka Zoo's elephants to a sanctuary in Tennessee.

Councilman John Alcala said conversations with Animal Outreach of Kansas have convinced him the zoo doesn't have the physical space to humanely care for Sunda and Tembo. The indoor and outdoor elephant space is well within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation standards.

But Alcala said the space is minuscule compared to the Tennessee sanctuary where they would have hundreds of acres to roam.

"I'm not an expert in this, but I know when an animal is kept in the minimum space," he said.

Alcala said he will ask city manager Norton Bonaparte for a council work session to discuss the idea and is willing to author a resolution calling for the elephants' move to Tennessee.

Animal Outreach co-founder Judy Carman noted numerous zoos including the San Francisco Zoo, the Detroit Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo have closed their elephant exhibits. The Topeka Zoo, she said, could help restore its recently damaged reputation by taking this "progressive step."

The AZA was quick to strike back at the claims of inadequate care. Spokesman Steve Feldman said the elephants share a strong bond, and disrupting their routine could be detrimental to their health.

"The notion that they need to be retired from the zoo is ridiculous," Feldman said. "They're living a comfortable life right now."

The zoo awaits a March 3 meeting in which an AZA panel will decide whether to pull Topeka's accreditation. Regulators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticized the zoo in August 2009 and September2009 inspection reports that cited noncompliance issues related to numerous animal deaths.

Zoo director Mike Coker retired in early December. Veterinarian Shirley Llizo's employment with the zoo also ended in the midst of the problems.

None of those issues raised last year related to the elephants. The USDA did cite the zoo in 2005 for deep cracks in several nails, flaps of pad overgrowth and a prominent bulge on the feet of the Asian and African elephants. Since that time, the zoo has sent weekly updates on the health status of the animals' feet.

Space, ground surface and co-mingling of different breeds are some of the biggest issues for Alcala and Animal Outreach.

The Topeka Zoo has 2,100 square feet of indoor space and three-quarters of an acre, or about 32,000 square feet, of outdoor space. AZA standards require 800 square feet of indoor space for two elephants and 2,700 square feet of outdoor space.

Feldman said these regulations are set by AZA experts.

"The city government in Topeka has relied on AZA and its high standards for guidance on its zoo, and we hope it would rely on that same expertise when it comes to the elephants at Topeka Zoo."

Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, said she offers 2,700 acres for the 17 elephants currently living there.

Another issue is the concrete that Tembo and Sunda spend the majority of their life walking on. Buckley listed numerous problems elephants exhibit from the hard ground including chronic arthritis.

"When these 7,000 to 10,000 pound megavertebrates are forced to stand on unnaturally hard surfaces, it has a consequence," she said.

Buckley's sanctuary separates Asian elephants from African elephants and said if Tembo and Sunda would most likely be accepted into the herds.

The AZA requires the different elephant types to be housed separately, but the Topeka Zoo has been housing them together for years under a waiver. Carman said veterinary records show aggression between the two elephants.

Feldman disagreed and said the elephants have developed a deep bond. About the space issue, he said it "isn't nearly as important as the quality of the program."

He also criticized the national group, In Defense of Animals, as a California attack group. IDA late last year sent a letter to the city asking that it consider retiring the elephants.

Buckley said the sanctuary would pay all costs associated with moving and housing the elephants in Tennessee.

City Councilwoman Karen Hiller said she remembered when the polar bears left the zoo. It was sad, she said, but she understood the need. She called Animal Outreach's proposal "compelling."

Mayor Bill Bunten, who has also met with Animal Outreach, said their proposal intrigued him. He said he believed a new zoo director should be in place before such a big decision was made.

"I'm concerned that the elephants have a good situation, and if it isn't good here we should consider change," he said.

City spokesman David Bevens echoed calls to wait for a new director.

"We plan to continue the comprehensive review of the zoo and are not in a position to consider major changes to exhibits at this time," he said.

City Councilman Jeff Preisner said once a new zoo director is in place, "if he deems the elephants would be better off placed in a sanctuary, that's fine with me."

Alcala said the city shouldn't wait for a new director, which could take several months.

"It's not about who runs it, it's about space and confinement," he said. "The zoo belongs to the people of Topeka, it doesn't belong to one person."

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