D.C. Zoo Harming Ill Elephant, Expert Says

Marie Galloway, the National Zoo's elephant manager, coaxes Toni, left, who has arthritis, and Ambika, into an area with a sand floor to make walking easier.
Marie Galloway, the National Zoo's elephant manager, coaxes Toni, left, who has arthritis, and Ambika, into an area with a sand floor to make walking easier. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

A noted elephant expert has told the National Zoo that it has exacerbated the problems of an ailing elephant, Toni, by putting the animal in small quarters with hard surfaces, and she has urged zoo officials to provide more space for the zoo's elephants in a more natural environment.

"In all my 30 years of observing wild elephants, I have never seen an elephant as crippled as Toni. . . . She symbolizes the dismal consequences of long-term lack of space and movement," Joyce Poole, an animal behaviorist with the Elephant Trust, said in a statement after visiting the zoo's Elephant House this month and meeting with the zoo's director, John Berry.

Toni, 40, one of four Asian elephants at the animal park, is receiving treatment for arthritis in her front legs, and the zoo has said that if her condition worsens, she might have to be euthanized. This has prompted some animal rights groups to push to have her moved to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., where she would have more room to exercise and be on softer ground.

At the zoo yesterday, Toni appeared to be holding her own. Her keepers said they are doing everything they feel is appropriate to make her comfortable, including, for the first time yesterday, putting down an eight-inch layer of sand in one area of her indoor enclosure.

"We know Toni as an individual, we are treating her as an individual, we love her," said Marie Galloway, the zoo's elephant manager. "I won't deny she has discomfort, but she also has many good moments."

Toni came to the National Zoo in 1989 from Scranton, Pa., where she lived alone in a decrepit concrete enclosure and suffered an injury to her left front leg. She had "17 great years" at the National Zoo, Galloway said, but last summer began having more problems walking.

The zoo's chief veterinarian, Suzan Murray, and assistant curator Tony Barthel said the arthritic elephant has shown improved mobility and flexibility since September but recently has been leaning more against walls or shifting her weight to ease pressure on her front legs. She has lost about 900 pounds since January 2003 and now weighs about 5,600 pounds. However, they said, she is still eating well, playing with toys and interacting with keepers and the other elephants.

"We've talked about euthanasia, but that doesn't mean we're going to do it, unless there is a really dramatic decline," Murray said.

Toni receives 9,000 milligrams of ibuprofen twice a day for pain and gets regular tests to make sure she doesn't have kidney trouble or tuberculosis. She is also being treated for a lost nail that is growing back. Zoo staffers check on her during the night and have put a closed-circuit television camera in her stall for additional monitoring.

The zoo has said that Toni dislikes change, that it would be cruel to relocate her to the Tennessee sanctuary and that she might not survive the trip.

Mel Richardson, a former zoo veterinarian who accompanied Poole and the group In Defense of Animals on the Jan. 4 visit to the zoo, said that he was "appalled" at Toni's "debilitated condition" and that she is suffering. He and Poole said the 32,880 square feet of outdoor space provided for Toni and the other elephants is too small and barren.

In her statement, Poole said: "While the zoo's elephant keepers, veterinarians and scientists (many of whom I know personally) are undoubtedly doing their best for Toni . . . it is simply not possible to meet an elephant's physical, social and emotional needs in a few acres (and Toni has less than this)."

But curator Barthel questioned outsiders' ability to observe the elephant "for 10 minutes and make a judgment call" about her situation.

"This is Toni's home, and we're giving her good care," he said.

The zoo concedes that its aging Elephant House could be improved and is working on plans for a new, larger facility. A spokesman said yesterday that while zoo officials don't think an elephant sanctuary is the best place for Toni, they plan to visit the Tennessee sanctuary to learn more about it.

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