Elephant incident unforgotten 

On July 18, 2003, the

On July 18, 2003, the Indianapolis Zoo curator of Plains and Encounters was injured by Ivory, an adult female African elephant, during a “routine” training session with her calf, Ajani. Ironically, the session was designed (in part) to lessen the mother’s anxiety at being separated from her first offspring. Instead, she reacted violently when Ajani bellowed about the removal of food after failing to perform on cue. Two of the five trainers present approached Ivory, issuing a “trunk-up” command. Ivory wrapped her trunk around one trainer’s leg, tripping him. She then scraped her tusk along his calf, creating a deep laceration. The trainer underwent a two-hour surgery followed by a skin graft. In quick succession, the zoo suspended all training sessions with both elephants, pending an assessment of their training regime, invited consultants from other animal facilities to review all aspects of the zoo’s elephant program and went into damage control mode. Apprehensive about all media coverage, the zoo’s first step was to withhold the name of the injured trainer, then to deflect as much media attention as possible. Next, the zoo rebutted a write-in campaign initiated by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) calling for a change in the zoo’s choice of elephant management by issuing a self-aggrandizing promotional report on the benefits of its program, albeit admitting that the entire program is currently under review — but not before calling PETA liars. PETA contacted the USDA, asking the government agency to require the Indianapolis Zoo to convert to the “safer and more humane form of elephant management known as ‘protected contact.’” According to Lisa Wathne, PETA’s captive exotic animal specialist, more than half the AZA-accredited (American Zoo and Aquarium Association, responsible for administering the Animal Welfare Act) zoos in this country now employee the protected contact method, where a barrier is always between animal and handler. She refers to the free contact system used by the Indianapolis Zoo (among others) as an “outdated training method that consists of establishing dominance and instilling fear … through force, restraint and violent beatings.” She notes that this marks the third attack in less than a year at a zoo that has not implemented protected contact (82 attacks worldwide since 1990). “Most zoos abandoned the cruel, circus-style of elephant management in favor of the far kinder protected contact system,” she says. “By refusing to follow this progressive trend, the Indianapolis Zoo continues to expose its elephants and their keepers to harm.” Wathne speculates that some facilities continue to resist protected contact because it “requires more skill. No ropes, chains or bull hooks are used for discipline. Elephants are trained using operant conditioning: cooperative behaviors are rewarded with treats and sounds; non-cooperation is ignored, not punished.” Wathne says there’s no truth to arguments that medical procedures are difficult if not impossible to perform in a protected contact situation, while stressing that attacks never happen. “They do still need to manage the animals,” she emphasizes. “Free contact management is a hold-over by old-timers who are reluctant to relinquish techniques that rely on dominance; it’s an ego thing. Elephant campaigns are the hardest because of the reluctance of elephant trainers to let go of power.” But Wathne remains frustrated, having received no response from the USDA or the Indianapolis Zoo. It’s nothing new, however, as she refers bitterly to the “USDA’s complicity in disgusting actions.” Her trepidation appears warranted. Numerous phone calls over several weeks resulted in the run-around as USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) employees first side-stepped questions, then debated terminology. “There is no formal investigation,” came the adamant response from Darby Holiday. “That’s your word, not ours.” Actually, it was the zoo’s word, but APHIS prefers “inquiry,” which Holiday defines as an open-ended evaluation of an allegation. “It’s just another complaint from PETA; they do that every day.” While the zoo braced for what officials dubbed a “post-accident investigation” by the USDA, they invited consultants from other facilities to monitor and assess the animals and staff. All were carefully chosen for their adherence to the free contact system. One Canadian consultant is referred to as “sadistic” within the industry, because he “beats the hell out of bull elephants,” while another is an outspoken opponent of protected contact, as evidenced by statements to the U.S. House of Representatives fighting legislation. With advice coming from that kind of professional, and considering its refusal to adopt a proven safe handling method, it’s no wonder zoo spokesperson Judith Gagin — after first demanding, “Are you a PETA or animal rights supporter, or do you have any animal rights sympathies?” — refused to answer any questions or make any statement. Wathne merely wonders, “How many other keepers will be injured or killed, and how many animals abused under the free contact system?” Editor’s note: Lovely, who writes frequently for NUVO, volunteers and contributes to several charities, including PETA. Her animal rights views were disclosed to the parties she interviewed for this article.

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Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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