washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Nation and Politics

Elephant's Death Renews Debate

Cold-Weather Zoos Called Harmful

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page A03

An elderly elephant brought to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago two years ago over the protests of animal welfare activists has died, adding to the already contentious debate over whether elephants belong in northern zoos with cold winters.

The 55-year-old animal, Peaches, was the oldest elephant in zoo captivity in the United States. Officials at the Lincoln Park Zoo attributed her death this week to "complications due to old age."


Peaches, 55, was moved from San Diego to Chicago. She died Monday. (Lincoln Park Zoo Via Chicago Sun-times)

But activists said the elephant, which had spent most of its life at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, suffered from being in a much smaller enclosure and being exposed to lower temperatures than in Southern California.

Peaches was one of three elephants sent to Chicago in 2003 from the California zoo, which needed space for young animals newly captured in Africa. A younger elephant from that trio died suddenly at the Lincoln Park Zoo three months ago.

"Zoos in northern climates, like Lincoln Park Zoo, are not suitable to house elephants," said Tony Madsen, founder of a Chicago area group that has worked to send the zoo's elephants to sanctuaries in warmer climates. He said his group is planning a memorial service for Peaches.

"It is ethically wrong to keep these intelligent and social animals, the world's largest land mammals, in small enclosures and barns just for human amusement," he said.

Lincoln Park spokeswoman Kelly McGrath said Wednesday that zoo officials had already decided to move the remaining elephant to another zoo as soon as arrangements can be made.

As highly social animals, elephants do not do well when kept alone. Dissatisfied with the zoo's response, activists have scheduled a protest rally at Lincoln Park today to call for the immediate transfer of the zoo's remaining elephant, Wankie, to a sanctuary.

According to a zoo statement, Peaches was found lying down Monday morning in her heated enclosure in the African Journey building. "Though she was alive, her eyes were unfocused and her breathing was labored," the release said. "For hours, veterinarians and keepers tried to get the elephant back on her feet, but to no avail." The animal was euthanized Monday evening.

The officials said they did not believe the death was related to the illness that killed 35-year-old Tatima at the zoo three months ago. Tatima apparently died of tuberculosis.

Ray Ryan, a former elephant keeper at the San Diego park who cared for Peaches, Tatima and Wankie there, said he did not think the surviving elephant would live long at the zoo.

"She's lost all of her family, and I think she'll quickly die of grief," he said. "When all three were moved to Chicago [in 2003], I said then they wouldn't last two years. And already two of them are dead."

By coincidence, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits facilities, is meeting in Florida this week to discuss elephant care. Spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said that the meeting is part of an ongoing review of standards and research, and that it is likely to result in new recommendations on elephant care.

Asked about the protests aimed at closing northern elephant exhibits, Ballentine said the association strongly disagrees with the notion that elephants cannot be well cared for in colder climates. She said some of the best elephant programs in North America are in zoos in Syracuse, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., and in Canada.

The issue of whether elephants belong in northern zoos was highlighted last year by the Detroit Zoo's director, Ron Kagan, who concluded that his facility could not ethically care for the animals.

Elephants in the wild can wander up to 30 miles a day, and Kagan argued that they suffer when kept indoors during long winters. Captive elephants suffer from foot problems and arthritis that are far less common in the wild.

Kagan sought to move Detroit's two elephants to a sanctuary in California, but the zoo association objected, saying that the animals were needed as companions to other elephants in the Columbus, Ohio, zoo. After several appeals, Kagan was given permission to send the elephants to the sanctuary.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have been campaigning to move elephants from northern zoos to southern sanctuaries, and local groups have become involved as well.

In Alaska, an effort has begun to move Maggie, the one elephant housed in the state, to a warmer climate. Zoo officials there are instead trying to meet her exercise needs by building what has been described as the world's largest treadmill.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company