ROYAL OAK, Mich. -- Step up, step down. Walk over the logs going forward, go over again going backwards.
Wanda the elephant is doing physical therapy to ease her arthritis and joint pain, a serious condition for a 9,300-pound animal and one common among older elephants that spend long periods on concrete instead of the softer soil of the wild.
Detroit zoo officials say their elephants need a warmer spot with room to roam.
(Rebecca Cook -- Reuters)
Nearby, her longtime companion Winky is getting her feet cleaned and scrubbed in an effort to stave off infections, which are also common among zoo elephants.
By any current standards, their nearly one-acre enclosure at the Detroit Zoological Institute is an exemplary elephant display, filled with trees and hanging balls and baskets of hay to play with. But Wanda and Winky are nonetheless at the center of an unprecedented dispute within the zoo world, touched off by the director's conclusion in May that it is inhumane to house two Asian elephants in a northern zoo. The long winter keeps them cooped up inside for months, he said, and makes them prone to serious physical and emotional ailments.
That decision has led to months of conflict between the Detroit zoo and the national zoo accrediting organization: The zoo wants to send Winky and Wanda to a warm-weather elephant sanctuary, but the zoo organization wants them to go to another northern zoo. The dispute could have major implications for the way zoos operate and provide for their elephants, and for the future of elephants in many other zoos. Already, the controversy is being seen as a defining moment in the broadening national debate over animal welfare and animal rights.
"We struggled for a long time to come up with a plan for our elephants that met their needs in a humane way, but we ultimately concluded it was impossible here in Detroit," said zoo Director Ron Kagan, a longtime advocate of improving the welfare of zoo animals.
"We in the zoo world present ourselves to the public as advocates for our animals, and yet it became clear that elephants in northern zoos don't get adequate time outside because of the cold, and they suffer physically and emotionally as a result," he said, adding that the zoo now pays $1,000 a month for Wanda's pain medications. "We realized we have to walk the talk, and that means sending these two wonderful animals to a place better suited to them."
After coming to the difficult decision to part with the elephants, Kagan thought he had a perfect solution. Winky, 51, and Wanda, 46, would be sent to one of two warm-weather U.S. elephant sanctuaries -- in Southern California and in Tennessee -- where they could roam relatively freely year-round and spend what Kagan called a "great retirement for two animals that have excited people for 50 years."
But Kagan's announcement proved premature. Earlier this month, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits most major U.S. zoos and controls the movement of endangered zoo animals such as Asian elephants, recommended that the animals be sent instead to the zoo in Columbus, Ohio.
Rejecting Kagan's argument that elephants cannot be housed humanely in northern zoos, AZA officials concluded that the two should be integrated into Columbus's "herd" of five elephants -- where they could serve as elderly "aunts" to a newborn male. Mike Keele of the Oregon Zoo, head of the association's species survival program for Asian elephants, said sending the animals to either of the two sanctuaries would be inappropriate because neither is accredited by the organization. He also said that some Asian elephants appear to like being outside in the snow.
"Every member of the herd in North America is important to the survival of the herd," Keele said. "We believe that Winky and Wanda still have an important role to play at the Columbus zoo in terms of the social situation there, and so they should remain in the managed herd." Unless the animals are declared "surplus," he said, they cannot be sent to a sanctuary, and any zoo that does so risks sanction from the AZA.
Dismayed, the Detroit zoo this week made the first formal appeal ever of an AZA elephant placement decision. It is now marshaling supporters to try to convince the association that, when it comes to elephant care, it's time for change.
What zoo officials call the North American herd of Asian elephants numbers about 280 animals, with about 150 in AZA facilities and others in circuses and smaller zoos. It is, by all accounts, a group that cannot sustain itself without the highly controversial addition of animals from the wild because it has a disproportionate number of older females.
What's more, breeding in zoos has proven difficult, life expectancy is shorter than in the wild, and many captive elephants sway their heads back and forth in a stress reaction when in small spaces for long periods of time. In 2000, an African elephant named Nancy at the National Zoo in Washington was found to have tuberculosis after it was euthanized.