By Christopher Doering
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government plans to look into possible changes in laws protecting zoo elephants after an animal welfare group complained that many were kept in cramped conditions that caused arthritis and foot disease and could be deadly.
The Agriculture Department said on Friday it would seek public comment on a petition filed last month by the group, In Defense of Animals, accusing U.S. zoos of violating the Animal Welfare Act by keeping elephants in small, unnatural pens.
The decision came amid a growing debate in the United States over whether it is humane for zoos to keep elephants, which in the wild walk miles (km) a day.
The animal welfare group, which has targeted such places as the U.S. National Zoo in Washington, estimated that half of all captive elephants suffered from arthritis and foot infections, ailments it said were the leading cause of euthanasia.
The group said it hoped USDA, which is responsible for inspecting American zoos, would take action to stop abuse of elephants. It urged zoos where elephants were suffering ailments to give them more space or move them to sanctuaries.
“The USDA is acknowledging the gravity of concern over the poor conditions for elephants in our nation’s zoos,” said Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals.
USDA said it would publish a notice in the Federal Register on the petition giving members of the public 60 days to make their opinions known. “There are a lot of people interested in this,” USDA spokesman Darby Holladay said. “We’ll review those comments and see if there needs to be any changes in the Animal Welfare Act.”
USDA conducts annual and unannounced reviews of zoos and other animal exhibits, with those deemed in “noncompliance” receiving additional inspections, Holladay said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, urged the National Zoo in January to send its three remaining Asian elephants to an animal sanctuary and close its exhibit.
The appeal came after the zoo put down an arthritic Asian elephant said to have been in worsening pain. The elephant named Toni was 40. Elephants can live to be 60 or older. The zoo said the enclosure had not been the cause of Toni’s death.
PETA said zoo elephants were dying decades short of their expected life span from illnesses directly related to the large animals’ lack of space.