I have had the great privilege of caring for elephants at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo for almost 20 years, and I strongly disagree with those who suggest that Toni, an Asian elephant, should be moved to a sanctuary because of her arthritic condition ["Arthritis Case Adds to Debate: Are Zoos Good for Elephants?" Metro, Nov. 14].
Toni's condition is not a product of her current environment. Before coming to the National Zoo, she had lived alone and had had a difficult life. During the 16 years she has been at the zoo, the quality of her life has improved dramatically. I saw Toni change from a sad, angry animal to a sweet, content, social elephant, now fully part of the herd. I coached her through difficult social interactions and through exercises to make her muscles grow strong; I nursed her through illness and coaxed her to walk on dirt.
Toni developed arthritis as the result of an injury she received before arriving at the National Zoo. As with arthritis in humans, there is no cure. However, Toni receives exercise for joint flexibility and mobility; treatments and physical therapy to ease discomfort; and medica- tions to lubricate joints and to reduce inflammation and pain. She also enjoys several outdoor yards with soft, natural substrate, pools to swim in and a cushioned indoor space.
As an experienced professional, as someone who loves elephants and as someone who knows and loves Toni, I believe that it is in Toni's best interest to stay in her home at the zoo.
When National Zoo management started giving 9,000 milligrams of ibuprofen to Toni, the young, 39-year-old elephant, the game was over. On the zoo's Web site, the elephant looks thin and ill.
How long will it take for zoos to stop fighting reality? The director of the National Zoo could release Toni to an elephant sanctuary with no pride lost. Quite the opposite: People would applaud him. How will the zoo look if it must euthanize Toni, as it did with the elephant before her?
Let her go.
The writer is a former elephant keeper.