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Memorial Service Scheduled for Gita the Elephant

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Animal rights activists and members of the Los Angeles Indian community will hold a memorial service today for Gita, whose death reignited the dispute over whether elephants should be kept in zoos.

A Hindu priest will officiate at the service for the 48-year-old Asian elephant in front of the Los Angeles Zoo's main entrance.

"We are honored to be joined by a priest from the Hindu Temple in Malibu in remembering Gita, not as a zoo specimen, but as an individual with a history, a family and a homeland," said Catherine Doyle of In Defense of Animals. "She suffered immensely in the zoo and her premature death will not be in vain."

Activists say elephants live to be 70 years old in the wild. But zoo officials said elephants in captivity generally live to be about 42, making Gita an older elephant.

Activists say Gita died Saturday morning as a direct result of being kept in inadequate conditions at the zoo.

Zoo officials, who are awaiting the results of a necropsy, believe Gita's death resulted from the crushing weight of her frame, which sent a flood of toxins into her bloodstream.

Gita suffered from chronic foot problems and arthritis, the two leading causes of death in captive elephants. Gita had foot surgery last year and was believed to have been fully healed.

Yesterday, animal rights activists repeated their call for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council to abandon plans for a 3.5-acre $40 million elephant exhibit at the zoo.

Chris DeRose, president of Last Chance for Animals, criticized Villaraigosa for backing a council decision to build the new elephant exhibit, which will house the zoo's two remaining pachyderms, Ruby and Billy.

"Gita is dead because the mayor did not have the strength and conviction to make a compassionate and intelligent decision for the elephants and the people of Los Angeles," DeRose said.

Villaraigosa's office did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Gita and two other elephants at the zoo have been a controversial presence at the zoo in recent years, with animal rights activists lobbying to have the animals moved to a more spacious sanctuary. Gita had suffered chronic foot problems, which zoo opponents blame on her small enclosure and concrete.

"Along with millions of zoo visitors, I had the great pleasure of meeting Gita and was amazed by her majesty, gentleness and friendliness," Villaraigosa said. "I am concerned about the precise cause of her death and have asked the City of Los Angeles Zoo Department for an independent, timely and exhaustive necropsy of Gita to determine the cause of Gita's death."

The zoo says Gita, a female Asian elephant, was found sitting down when keepers arrived Saturday morning. Despite medical treatment, she died shortly after 9:30 Saturday morning.

Gita, who arrived in Los Angeles from India in 1959, lead a procession of elephants across Griffith Park in 1966 when the zoo moved from the old Griffith Park location to its new location.

"Gita is emblematic of what is wrong with keeping animals in zoos today. Elephants need a far higher quality of life," Doyle said. "I really believe this was preventable. I hold Los Angeles Zoo, the mayor and the city accountable for her death. They all failed her when they did not move her and all of those elephants to a sanctuary."

Gita has not been on display for some time. She was living with Ruby, an African elephant, in a small "temporary" enclosure, separated by a barrier, according to In Defense of Animals, an animal rights group. The zoo also has a male elephant, which is on display.

Three years ago, the zoo sent Ruby to another zoo in Knoxville, Tenn., separating her from Gita, her elephant companion of 16 years.

Ruby was returned to the L.A. Zoo after she did not adjust to her new home.

"Elephants are very social, very complex animals," Doyle said. "Her death was premature. In the wild, Asian elephants are still breeding in their 50s."

(Copyright ©2014 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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