Are Zoos Killing Elephants?

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KEN HIVELY / LOS ANGELES TIMES / AP

Gita, a 48-year-old Asian elephant, died Saturday at the Los Angeles Zoo, where critics had charged the huge animals were being kept in unhealthy conditions

She was the grand old lady of the Los Angeles Zoo, beloved by employees and millions of Angelenos who periodically flocked to the zoo to visit her. But when Gita, a 48-year-old Asian elephant, was found dead in her enclosure Saturday morning, tears were mixed with anger on the part of those who had been expressing concerns over Gita's health and the well-being of two other elephants living at the zoo.

"I said I would not be surprised if Gita was dead in six months," says veterinarian Mel Richardson, who testified last September before city officials who were considering the since-approved $39 million plan to improve the L.A. Zoo's elephant exhibit. "It's been nine months. Gita had osteomyelitis in her toes and was losing bones in her feet. She was in pain daily." Richardson, a former veterinarian for the San Antonio and Woodland Park zoos, had not examined Gita but had reviewed hundreds of pages of her medical records secured under the California open records law by In Defense of Animals, a California-based organization that had been fighting to have Gita moved to an elephant sancturary.

In fact, Gita has been at the center of a contentious debate over whether the L.A. Zoo should continue to exhibit elephants at all. In September the 8,000-pound pachyderm, who got her exercise on early-morning strolls before the zoo opened, had state-of-the art foot surgery to relieve bone disease that had led to arthritis, which is common among elephants living in captivity. Zoo officials had optimistically declared that Gita was on her way to a full recovery.

But according to newspaper accounts, two keepers found Gita about 5 a.m. Saturday morning sitting up dog-style in the outdoor part of her enclosure with her back legs tucked under her and her front legs outstretched. This position is especially dangerous for the circulatory systems of the giant elephants, who rarely sit down. All attempts to treat Gita failed, and officials have not announced the precise cause of Gita's death. L.A. Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa asked the city for "an independent, timely and exhaustive necropsy of Gita to determine the cause of Gita's death."

Gita's death has intensified the already-mounting pressure on zoos to re-think their elephant exhibits. Last week, an elephant at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, lost her calf in utero."These two incidents intensify the pressure on zoos to aknowledge what they're in denial about — that confining elephants in zoos causes them to suffer and die prematurely," says Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals."Elephants in zoos repeatedly have stillbirths and experts we've talked to believe that the lack of exercise and physical fitness contribute to their inability to have successful pregnancies."

Whatever the ultimate outcome of these incidents, some of Gita's mourners expressed a sense of relief on her behalf.  "At least she was out of her pain," says Richardson