In July, the Sedgwick County Zoo board of directors will decide whether to proceed with its most expensive exhibit yet: A new elephant exhibit and breeding facility. The decision comes as an international animal rights group is trying to get elephants banned from most zoos.
The group, In Defense of Animals, based in San Rafael, Calif., is advocating that the earth's largest land mammals be sent to live in sanctuaries, saying that 60 percent of the elephants in the nation's zoos suffer from foot problems, joint disorders and arthritis.
The group has targeted elephant exhibits in zoos in Houston, Seattle, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and, most recently, Topeka.
Now it may shift its attention to the Sedgwick County Zoo, which disputes many of the group's concerns and says its elephants are in excellent health.
"It's still under review," said Catherine Doyle, elephant campaign director of In Defense of Animals.
Zoos across the U.S.
Last month Doyle urged the Topeka City Council to turn its elephants over to a sanctuary, saying the Topeka zoo was not providing adequate veterinary care for the elephants.
"One of the problems with the zoos in Kansas," Doyle said," is that the weather forces the animals indoors where they stand on concrete, which can be very damaging ... and can also be life-threatening.''
During the same meeting, Sedgwick County Zoo executive director Mark Reed told the Topeka council members that they faced losing the zoo's accreditation and all the animals on loan from other zoos should they move the elephants.
At Reed's urging, the council voted to keep the elephants.
Reed said he spoke up for the Topeka zoo's elephant program in part because he saw it as his responsibility — what happens in one Kansas zoo ultimately affects all Kansas zoos.
Although Reed says that elephants are the most requested and most recognizable zoo animals, some zoos, including Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, the Detroit Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo, are doing away with their elephant exhibits or phasing them out.
Most lacked the needed space or funding or were not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to continue their programs, Reed said.
Many more zoos, including the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the Oklahoma City Zoo, are expanding their elephant exhibits.
"At least three-quarters of the zoos in the last six years have got plans or have started construction for new facilities," Reed said.
Training tool criticized
Stacked on top of each other, the pile of medical records for Sedgwick County's two elephants is nearly a foot thick.
The records show that Stephanie is 7,247 pounds and is 223 inches from the tip of her trunk to the bottom of her tail. Cinda weighs 7,946 pounds and is 225 inches long.
The South African bush elephants are close to 40 years old and have been at the zoo since the fall of 1972.
The records detail the zoo's elephant training and management methods.
That is where In Defense of Animals has problems with Wichita's zoo.
"Sedgwick County Zoo uses the circus style of training and management," Doyle said. "They use a device called a bullhook that is a steel-tipped device, similar to a fireplace poker with a point and hook. It is used to poke and prod and strike and elephant into compliance."
She points to two videos on You Tube — one 46 seconds long, the other 1 minute 21 seconds — each showing a handler using a bullhook while working with a Sedgwick County Zoo elephant.
"Elephants are famous for their memory," Doyle said. "There is a negative association with the bullhooks. It's negative reinforcement and that's the big issue we have with the Sedgwick County Zoo. There is no need to use that style of training."
Sedgwick County Zoo officials disagree.
The zoo's management guide says the tool should never be used to strike an animal, and should be carried at the handler's side, not swung. The handler, on occasion, can use the bullhook as a simulated tusk because elephants normally push and prod each other with their tusks.
The modern bullhook guide, like the one used at Sedgwick County Zoo, has a slightly pointed end and a blunt metal hook.
Think of it as a tool, said Christan Baumer, spokeswoman for the zoo.
"The bullhook at the Sedgwick County Zoo comes in contact with the elephant skin but it never penetrates the skin, never," Baumer said. "Our elephants can and do respond to the touch of a finger with some commands. But the guide is used to queue the elephant, much like the reins on a horse or a leash on a dog. It is a tool we use to guide the elephant in the direction we want them to go."
Stephanie and Cinda are trained by voice commands and can recognize up to 67 commands. They can, for example, raise a foot or blow bubbles in the water, do sit-ups and dance the cha-cha. They can even poop on command — and into a wheelbarrow.
Climate and health
Doyle said that because elephants originate in the warm climates of Africa and Asia, she is worried that the cold winters force the elephants to remain in cramped spaces indoors, standing on concrete for months at a time. That, she said, can lead to foot infections, joint disease and psychological problems stemming from boredom and stress.
"Elephants are highly intelligent and need mental stimulation," Doyle said. "You can't just throw toys into that space. It's not the same as keeping the elephants outdoors year-round in an elephant sanctuary."
Sedgwick County Zoo officials said they are aware of the climate-related concerns.
"Stephanie and Cinda are in great shape and maintain a healthy lifestyle through a daily exercise routine, regular foot care treatments and good diet," Reed said.
They do not show any signs of foot disease or arthritis, according to their medical records.
The elephants receive weekly pedicures. During the winter, mineral oil is rubbed over their skin to help it stay supple.
They are walked each day, bathed and given commands to help stimulate them physically and mentally.
Currently, Stephanie and Cinda have 19,000 square feet of space, which meets AZA standards.
Zoo's expansion plan
The next step at the zoo is to build an elephant exhibit and breeding facility, which Reed said is still being designed.
So far, the plan calls for:
* An elephant area that will include 4.75 acres of public viewing space and hold up to six African elephant cows with calves and two bulls.
The exhibit would maintain a matriarchal line the way elephant herds do in the wild, Reed said.
* Varied terrain and places to hide food to encourage natural foraging behavior.
* Waterways where elephants could swim and wallow in the mud.
* A breeding program that would lead North American efforts in conservation of elephants.
Construction most likely won't begin until the economy significantly improves.
If a successful breeding program is established, Sedgwick County would have the first baby elephant born in Kansas.