January 27, 2006

PETA seeks sanctuary for US National Zoo elephants

WASHINGTON - An animal rights group on Thursday appealed to the U.S. National Zoo in Washington to send its three remaining Asian elephants to an animal sanctuary and close its elephant exhibit.

The appeal came a day after the zoo put down an arthritic Asian elephant who was said to have been in worsening pain. The elephant named Toni was 40. Elephants can live to be 60 or older.

"Toni was clearly in bad shape and had been suffering for a long time. If she had been sent to a sanctuary years ago, her quality of life and health would have vastly improved," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, said in a letter to the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo.

PETA said elephants in zoos were dying decades short of their expected lifespan from illnesses that were directly related to the large animals' lack of spaces and their inability to walk great distances each day.

The organization urged National Zoo Director John Berry to send the park's three remaining elephants, four-year-old Kandula; his mother, 30-year-old Shanthi, and Ambika, 57, to an accredited sanctuary to spare them from a life of misery.

"At either The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee or the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California, the zoo's elephants would have the opportunity to roam through hundreds of acres (hectares) of natural habitat... and enjoy full, healthy and enriching lives," the letter said.

A spokesman for the National Zoo was not immediately available for comment.

There has been a growing debate in the United States over whether it is appropriate for zoos to keep elephants, which in the wild walk miles a day and have home ranges of up to 200 square miles.

Critics have said that zoo conditions, including small, concrete-floored enclosures, make elephants miserable.

At a news conference on Wednesday, the National Zoo's elephant curator, Tony Barthel, said Ambika, who is healthy and free of arthritis, provided evidence that the zoo enclosure was not the cause of Toni's health woes.

"She has been living in the current conditions at the National Zoo for longer than Toni was alive," he said.

Berry told reporters the zoo was building a larger exhibit and was considering moving at least some elephants to a 100-acre (40.5-hectare) to 200-acre (81-hectare) enclosure at its more rural conservation facility in Virginia.

Some U.S. zoos have closed their elephant exhibits in the past few years in the light of concern over odd behavior and arthritis among the animals.

In September zookeepers in Anchorage, Alaska said they were installing a treadmill for their one elephant.