By: PAUL EAKINS – Staff Writer
SAN PASQUAL VALLEY —- The euthanization last month of Carol, a beloved 39-year-old Asian elephant at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, has reignited the debate over whether zoos provide the care they should for wild animals whose captivity zoo officials say ultimately may protect the species from extinction.
Park officials said the injured and diseased elephant, which gained fame when she appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and had lived most of her life at the park, had to be killed to end her suffering, but animal advocates lambasted the park’s decision.
Advocates said in recent interviews that the pachyderm’s death was only the latest of many incidents of animal mistreatment at the animal park through the years.
Zoos are built for human entertainment and don’t seriously consider the animals’ quality of life, animal advocates said. They said the elephant euthanized June 19 should have been sent to an animal sanctuary instead and that the park’s mistreatment of the animal was what caused her foot problems and degenerative joint disease.
“The zoo is not a sanctuary,” said Florence Lambert, founder of the La Jolla-based Elephant Alliance. “On the contrary, it’s a prison.”
Officials at the animal park said last week, however, that the park plays an important role in educating the public about wild animals and in learning skills that will help preservationists manage animals in the wild, and in running breeding programs to reintroduce animals to their natural habitats. The animals that are in captivity are given the best care, officials said.
The typical zoos of previous decades that had small, cramped cages with bars separating the inactive animals from human visitors are disappearing, said Robert Wiese, director of collections for the animal park.
“Now, we view ourselves as true conservation organizations and education organizations that really have a role to play in the survival of species,” Wiese said.
Successes and failures
When visitors take the animal park’s motorized Heart of Africa tour —- an almost 2 1/2-mile route around an enormous open space designed to emulate the African wilderness where dozens of hoofed species roam —- the guides usually mention some of what park officials consider to be breeding program success stories.
Officials say the park has had many, with hundreds of offspring from dozens of often endangered species being born at the park since even before it officially opened to the public in 1972. Animals from a handful of these species, most notably the California condor, have been released into the wild.
Among the developments that park officials count as successes:
– 125 cheetahs have been born since 1970;
– 91 southern white rhinos, 10 black rhinos and 50 Indian rhinos have been born at the park;
– 128 Przewalski’s horses, the only truly wild species of horse in the world, have been born at the park to be reintroduced to its natural habitat in Mongolia and China. The species is extinct in the wild;
– about 300 Arabian oryx, a species of antelope that was near extinction in the 1960s, have been bred at the park, some of which have been released to the wild in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia;
– the animal park has helped breed and reintroduce California condors to the wild. The species has grown from 27 birds in 1987 to 305 as of June 1, 140 of which are in the wild.
The park also helps establish captive breeding or management programs of animals to be reintroduced to the wild in other parts of the world, most recently working with Russia to preserve the Saiga, an antelopelike mammal, officials said.
But the park also has had its failures, tragedies and publicity messes.
In addition to Carol the elephant, other park animals have died in tragic situations.
In April, a lion cub named Koza was mauled by an older female lion when a park staff member allowed the two to interact in a tragedy park officials attributed to “human error.” The badly injured cub had to be euthanized.
After the animal park sent three old African female elephants to the Chicago Zoo in 2002 to make room for a herd of incoming wild African elephants, all three died within three years from a bacterial disease. Critics blamed the deaths on the animals’ relocation to a much colder environment.
The incoming herd of seven elephants also created controversy because the pachyderms were taken from the wild in Swaziland. The Swaziland government had planned to kill the elephants in an attempt to control the country’s growing elephant population.
But critics say taking any creature out of the wild does little to help the individual or the species. Most of those born in captivity are sent to other zoos, not released back to the wild, they say.
“If you’re bringing wild elephants from Africa to put into a zoo or the Wild Animal Park, that’s not conservation to me,” said Jane Cartmill of Encinitas, vice president of San Diego Animal Advocates.
Caring for animals
The conditions in which captive animals live, particularly elephants, is one reason many animal activists such as Lambert and Cartmill say they oppose zoos.
Animals should be kept in a natural environment where they have enough open space to live and behave naturally, Cartmill said.
“The future isn’t bright for wild animals,” she said. “But if we’re going to try to preserve some, the conditions have to really be adequate to their needs.”
The argument that zoos preserve species that may face danger in the wild just doesn’t hold water, she said. Each animal has a right to a natural quality of life, despite its species’ survival status, Cartmill said.
“Would you rather go extinct or have your children kept in jails all of their lives?” Cartmill said. “You don’t want to try to save the species at the expense of the individuals.”
Wiese, of the animal park, said zoos play a role not only in preserving the species, but also in educating the public about perils facing the animals.
“I think one of the underestimated positive aspects that zoos have is to really inspire people to care about animals,” Wiese said.
At the park, staff members care for an animal’s physical and mental well-being, he said.
For example, plants for the African elephants are scattered throughout their grassy 3-acre space to allow them to forage for food as they would in the wild. The elephants have pools where they can bathe and toylike “enrichment” items for the animals to play with. They also receive regular care and attention from park staff members.
On Thursday, the elephants took turns visiting their caretakers at a large metal gate through which the park staff members inspected the elephants’ eyes, feet, teeth and overall health. The elephants in return got some attention and a good scratching with a brush.
“We give animals the best care available,” Wiese said.
A massive task
But when Carol the elephant was euthanized, critics said the zoo was to blame for her foot and joint problems after at least 20 years of being kept chained at night on a hard concrete surface. In the 1990s, the animal park stopped the practice of chaining its elephants, including Carol, at night, zoo officials said.
The park also received worldwide attention and criticism in 1988 when an elephant that had been transported from the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park to the Wild Animal Park was chained and beaten by park staff members with axe handles to control the animal.
Jeff Andrews, the park’s animal care manager, said Thursday that zoos are continually learning what is best for animals and that newcomers such as the African elephants act more naturally and are healthier than some animals in the past.
“These animals will fare much better due to the change in management strategies that we have,” Andrews said. “Our general premise is to let elephants be elephants. We’re promoting the most natural behavior possible.”
Elliot Katz, a veterinarian and founder of the San Rafael-based In Defense of Animals that had protested the decision to euthanize Carol, said elephants need more space than the animal park and most zoos provide.
“They’re the largest mammal, and their feet and their legs are designed to be moving, to be on different kinds of surfaces,” Katz said.
But he admitted that if more zoos provided a somewhat natural environment for all of its animals like that offered in the park’s Journey into Africa exhibit, the animals would be better off.
“If other zoos had that, there would be some quality of life to that,” Katz said.
Extinction versus captivity
Much of the natural world is becoming human-managed natural areas much like the animal park, Wiese said.
“The line between zoos and the wild is really blurring,” he said. “It’s just a matter of size.”
Zoos’ work with animals and their research has helped biologists manage wildlife preserves throughout the world, Wiese said.
Zoo researchers, such as at the park’s Conservation and Research for Endangered Species center, learn helpful information such as the chemical composition of giant pandas’ milk, which has helped biologists in China care for young pandas to reintroduce them to the wild, and how to capture animals without harming them.
“If we did not have animals in zoos, (biologists) would not know how to get out and immobilize these animals safely in the wild,” Wiese said.
Animal advocates say individual animals still suffer as a result of their captivity.
Cartmill said that wild animals kept in captivity aren’t truly wild anymore, which may be just as bad as humans causing their extinction.
“The question is, do we just let the species die out, or do we try to save some as museum pieces?” Cartmill said. “I think it’s a very difficult question. As much as I would not like to see any of the endangered species on our planet become extinct … I don’t want to see any individuals of those species live lives of confinement and frustration.”
Contact staff writer Paul Eakins at (760) 740-5420 or email@example.com.