A Sept. 21 article on a dispute over what constitutes humane care for elephants incorrectly described an animal preserve in California that houses one of the nation's two major elephant sanctuaries. The 100-acre elephant range is part of a 2,300-acre preserve. (Published 9/22/04)

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.

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.

And then there are the foot and joint problems, which are widespread. In the wild, elephants walk as much as 30 miles a day, and movement keeps their feet and joints healthy. In many zoos -- and certainly most circuses -- elephants spend long hours standing still on concrete. As zoo leaders explain, however, the alternatives may not be better: Many elephants are killed in the wild by poachers, and their habitat is quickly vanishing.

The nation's two major elephant sanctuaries -- a 100-acre elephant range in California that is part of a preserve with about 2,600 captive animals, and a 2,700-acre facility in Tennessee -- have agreed to take Wanda and Winky. Both offer large open spaces and mild climates, and the California facility even has a massive hot tub for the elephants. However, the sanctuaries, which are nonprofit organizations that take in abused and "surplus" animals, have not been embraced by the zoo organization, in part because the sanctuary leaders have been quite critical of AZA guidelines and practices.

In the sanctuaries, the animals are largely allowed to do as they choose. In addition, keepers and the animals never come into direct contact, and keepers use only positive enforcement methods to encourage the animals to behave. In many zoos, elephant keepers still have direct access to the animals inside their enclosures, a practice that requires some level of dominance and physical intimidation to train the animals and protect the keepers.

One of Kagan's objections to moving Winky and Wanda to the Columbus zoo is that the facility -- acknowledged to be one of the nation's best for elephants -- nonetheless uses dominance techniques.

"We just don't see how threatening or punishing an elephant can be ever okay," Kagan said.

Gerald Borin, executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, acknowledged that his keepers do enter the enclosure of one female elephant regularly. He said the keepers carry an ankus -- a short metal staff with a sharp, curved end -- for protection, but almost always work with the elephants using positive reinforcement. The hands-on approach inside the enclosure, he said, allowed keepers to help the elephant with the recent successful birth of a baby male.

Borin said his zoo asked for Wanda and Winky in order to create a larger and more complex herd for the highly social elephants. He said a large new indoor elephant enclosure allows the animals to move about even during the winter months. But he said he was not opposed to sending some elephants to sanctuaries "if that would clearly be best for them."

Detroit's action follows the San Francisco Zoo's decision earlier this year to send its two elephants to a sanctuary. That decision, also contested by the AZA, was prompted by accusations of inadequate facilities and care, not ethical considerations, but the coincidence means the "AZA is finding itself not just trying to contain a brushfire, but seeing the blaze break out all around the country," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. The society strongly supports the Detroit zoo's position.

In resisting calls to send Wanda and Winky to a sanctuary, the AZA is also trying to stave off difficult questions being raised about keeping any elephants in captivity -- questions that could easily mushroom into a broader debate about rhinos or lions or other big mammals.

Michael Hutchins, the association's conservation and science director, pointedly made the connection by bringing up the Detroit zoo's large new polar bear display and noting that in the wild, the bears travel extensively and never experience the summertime temperatures that occur in Detroit. "Using their logic," he said, "then polar bears really shouldn't be in Detroit, either."

Kagan says there is no comparison between his zoo's polar bear display -- which features one bear rescued from a Mexico circus and large pools of cold salt water with fish -- and the elephants' situation.

"By many indices, elephants just don't do very well in captivity," he said. "They have more difficulty adapting than most other animals, don't breed as well, and show signs of stress. This is a challenge that zoos need to talk about, and that the public needs to learn about, too."

Detroit zoo officials say their elephants need a warmer spot with room to roam.