Legislation aims to make elephants comfortable
Add more space or lose the pachyderms, one lawmaker has said to zoos.
SAN ANDREAS, Calif. -- Winky, a 9,500-pound Asian elephant who was a featured attraction for 36 years at the Sacramento Zoo, savors her retirement with seven other elephants on a sprawling range in the state.
Her arrival at the Ark 2000 sanctuary of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, was arranged because of Winky's aching feet and pointed acknowledgments by two zoos that their artificial elephant habitats were ill-equipped to meet the needs of the massive animals.
"Our small, 1940s exhibit was substandard by anyone's standard," said Leslie Field, lead animal keeper at the Sacramento Zoo, which decided to close its elephant exhibit in 1991. "Our desire was for Winky to have elephant friends and to go to another place."
But Winky's next stop, the Detroit Zoo, also closed its exhibit, declaring in 2004 that Winky and another elephant, Wanda, suffered from chronic arthritis as well as psychological problems. The zoo said its 1-acre habitat wasn't helping either elephant.
Now a California state lawmaker is pushing legislation that could force some of the state's leading zoos to give up their elephant populations if they don't significantly expand acreage for their popular pachyderms.
The so-called Elephant Protection Act introduced by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, a Democrat, would require zoos to set aside at least five acres of usable habitat for every three elephants, plus an additional half-acre for each additional elephant.
The measure would also ban the use of steel-tipped bullhooks and chains to herd or restrain the animals.
"I simply want the treatment of elephants to improve," said Levine, who held a recent news conference in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Zoo to announce the bill. "If zoos build these [expanded] compounds because it is the right thing to do, fine. If they can't and they send them to elephant sanctuaries, that's fine, too. But these highly intelligent and highly social creatures should live in a way that doesn't promote suffering."
The bill is drawing protests from the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo and its Wild Animal Park. The zoos say they have invested or are investing millions of dollars to upgrade their elephant facilities.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association is charging that the bill sets arbitrary acreage requirements for zoo elephants that are unsupported by science.
"We believe that these changes are another attempt by animal-rights activists to effectively ban elephants from zoos today and then ban other species, such as giraffes, lions and penguins, from zoos tomorrow," the organization said in a statement.
Only one California zoo -- the Oakland Zoo -- would meet the standards of the legislation. It houses four elephants on six acres, and doesn't use bullhooks or chains.
"This bill doesn't take away people's right to see the animals," said Nicole G. Paquette, general counsel for the Animal Protection Institute in Sacramento, which pushed for the legislation. "It is not banning them in zoos or circuses. It's saying: Treat them humanely, break the chains, get rid of the bullhooks, and give these animals the space they deserve."
At the Ark 2000 sanctuary, situated on 2,300 acres of oak woodlands and grassy hills in Calaveras County, the PAWS group houses three African elephants in one 80-acre enclosure and five older, less mobile Asian elephants in a 35-acre pen.