Lion Country’s elephants packing their trunks

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By Kelly Wolfe

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, September 22, 2006

LOXAHATCHEE, Florida — Stumpy and Mama have been munching hay side by
side at Lion Country Safari since Richard Nixon was president.

Once, they had plenty of friends. Today, they represent the end of an
era — the last two elephants left at the 39-year-old wildlife park,
and the last two on display in Palm Beach County.

As soon as the drive-through zoo off Southern Boulevard finds a new
home for them, the park will shut down its elephant exhibit.

Meanwhile, they go about their business, sharing the kind of
comfortable silence enjoyed only by those who have known each other
for a long, long time.

“It tears my heart out,” said Terry Wolf, wildlife director at Lion
Country Safari. “When Bulwagi left to go to Disney, it was like when
my son went off to go to college. It’s heartbreaking, but you know
that it’s a step that he needs to take in his life.

“And it will be the same with these guys when they leave. I’ve known
Stumpy since 1970, when I started here… and Mama came to us in
1972, so I’ve known these guys more than I’ve known most of my
friends and family. They are part of your family, and it’s hard.”

Mama was 2 when she left her native Africa to come to Lion Country.
Stumpy, then about 11, was here to greet her. A decade later, Stumpy
saw Mama through her first and only pregnancy, then served as
spinster aunt to Mama’s calf, Bulwagi. (Stumpy also looked on,
presumably in horror, while Bulwagi nursed for nine years.)

Wolf said Lion Country Safari is getting out of the elephant business
because it is a “huge commitment, not only financially but resource-
wise as far as staff, buildings and time.”

“I’m not making a joke when I say elephants are a big problem,” Wolf
said. “We take care of their feet every day, we bathe them every
week, we have an exercise program for them so they don’t get fat, we
have to monitor their diet and run blood tests.”

Lion Country is not the only zoo-type facility reevaluating its
elephant exhibit. Pressure from animal rights groups, coupled with
changes in industry standards, have made caring for elephants more
expensive (about $30,000 a year) and labor-intensive.

The Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park has not had elephants for years.
Zoos in San Francisco and Detroit have closed exhibits. The Bronx Zoo
in New York has said it will not take on new elephants.

The National Zoo in Washington, bucking the trend, has announced
plans to spend $60 million to expand its elephant facility.

Nonprofit groups such as In Defense of Animals want all zoos to move
elephants to sanctuaries. The group says there are two U.S.
sanctuaries that take elephants, in California and Tennessee.

“When students go to a zoo, what they see is a crippled elephant in
an unnatural setting,” said Elliot Katz, a veterinarian who founded
the California-based In Defense of Animals. “You don’t see their
energy. They are cartoons, almost.”

People would be better off learning about elephants through videos
and the Animal Planet cable channel, Katz said.

Wolf, Lion Country’s wildlife director, disagreed.

“We feel elephants are so important in teaching the public, and
especially the children, about conservation,” he said.

In Defense of Animals also criticized Lion Country Safari for
splitting up its elephants. The park had four at the start of the
year, before Bulwagi went to Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom,
where he will have more opportunity to breed, and Ladybird was sent
to Greenville, S.C., to be a companion for another elephant.

Wolf said both were doing well, especially Bulwagi.

“He’s fine up there,” Wolf said. “They have a great elephant
facility, and there are plenty of new girlfriends for him to go to.”

Wolf wants to send Mama and Stumpy to the same zoo. “Our hope is that
they stay together,” he said.

Katz said Lion Country’s elephants should be sent to the Tennessee
sanctuary, which he said has room for 20 more. Elephants who are
separated from longtime companions become depressed, he said.

“Elephants are herd animals,” Katz said. “When you have three animals
who have lived together for 34 years, they are a family unit.”

Wolf agreed that elephants suffer from separation anxiety. When
Ladybird was shipped to South Carolina, he stayed with her for two
weeks to ease her transition.

“They are very social animals,” Wolf said. “It does occur in the wild
where females will move from one herd to another. But what’s bad is
when an animal is left alone.”

Wolf said he doesn’t want to send Stumpy and Mama to a sanctuary
where people can’t see them.

“You can watch all the videos you want, but there is nothing like
seeing them up close, smelling them, when they look you in the eye,”
he said. “Those kind of teaching moments are what zoos are all about.”

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