Space for the Species
February 19, 2006 (WLS) -- A recent study shows elephants are a big draw for zoos. Seeing these majestic, graceful mammals is seen - by some - as not only entertainment, but also a necessity for their survival around the world. But there is criticism that this public access comes at the price of the captive elephant's well being.
ABC7 looks at the balance between elephant conservation and exhibition. Also, ABC7 gets a rare glimpse into a place devoted to the survival of captive elephants.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, welcomed its newest residents in the last three weeks. Living on 200 acres is a far cry from what they were used to at the Hawthorn Corporation in Richmond, Illinois. In February 1997, ABC7's I-Team found the elephants shackled indoors at the Hawthorn Corporation. The federal government eventually sued hawthorn for physical abuse, substandard care and improper housing conditions in 2003.
To settle the suit, Hawthorn agreed to relinquish custody of its female elephants to the sanctuary, where they will be quarantined for one year due to exposure to tuberculosis. Because TB can be spread from elephant to human, humans wear masks around the elephant. But there are other health problems evident by scars that are slow to heal and anti-social behavior in these naturally social mammals.
"Lack of space is the reason for most of the ailments that captive elephants are suffering from," said Carol Buckley, Elephant Sanctuary.
Buckley co-founded the Elephant Sanctuary 11 years ago starting with 100 acres. Now the sanctuary covers 2700 acres. There are 19 elephants at the sanctuary, but there's a capacity for 100.
A delegation of Chicago officials recently visited the Elephant Sanctuary, which is typically not open to the public. But the herds can be viewed twenty fours hours a day on live streaming video via the sanctuary's website.
"Children and adults should be learning from quality examples of habitat and seeing animals at their most realistic and not depressed, confined," said Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th Ward.
Alderman Mary Ann Smith headed the delegation. She's proposed an ordinance that would require each elephant in Chicago have a minimum amount of space.
"Wwe need to be specific about what we're talking about we shouldn't leave it to chance. when there is so much going on here with quality of life for a creature we have assumed responsibility for," said Ald. Smith.
The Alderman Smith ordinance calls for:
"That's a huge mistake," said Dr. Stuart Strahl, Chicago Zoological Society and Brookfield Zoo.
Dr. Stuart Strahl is the president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society and the director of suburban Brookfield Zoo where two African elephants live on about a quarter acre of outdoor space. He says seeing these charismatic creatures in person connects visitors to conservations efforts worldwide. While any Chicago ordinance would not affect suburban Brookfield zoo, Doctor Strahl calls the proposal excessive.
"Our elephants are well cared for they have all the food they need they are actively engaged by their keepers both inside and outside. they don't need to move thirty miles in a day," said Dr. Strahl.
Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo has put plans to exhibit elephants on hold regardless of the proposed ordinance. The outdoor exhibit that used to house three elephants on about a quarter acre is now empty: all three died within seven months of one another from various diseases. The Lincoln Park Zoo has initiated a study to see if the illnesses and problems suffered by elephants in captivity are similar to elephants in the wild. Until that study is complete the study -- there won't be elephants at Lincoln Park.
"If we need spacing......we need to know that," said Kelly McGrath, Lincoln Park Zoo.
As Chicago officials prepare to address the spacing issue, elephants that recently arrived at the sanctuary are slowly exploring their new home and discovering the possibilities of space.
A public hearing on the proposed ordinance takes place this Thursday at 10a.m. If approved by the committee, it could go to full council as soon as March 1.
Also, the proposed ordinance would force circuses coming to town to have a certain amount of space for their animals. Plus some training techniques that inflict pain and are considered cruel by animal activists would be illegal.
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