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Jewish World Review March 12, 2004 / 19 Adar, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Consumer Reports

It's a jungle out there | If the animal rights group In Defense of Animals truly cared about animals, it wouldn't be going after people who provide extraordinary care for wildlife. But that's what happened this month after the San Francisco Zoo announced that staff was planning to euthanize Calle, a 37-year-old Asian elephant, if her health worsened.

Over the weekend, Calle collapsed on her belly and rear legs, prompting the veterinary staff to put her down ahead of schedule early Sunday morning. The staff was red-eyed and long-faced Tuesday at the loss of Calle, made worse by the bitter experience of being slimed by In Defense of Animals zealots who trashed Calle's care and blamed the zoo's climate and conditions for Calle's bad health.

"This is one of the worst cases of neglect that I, as a veterinarian, have ever seen," Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals of Mill Valley, Calif., said in a press release. Katz blamed the "cold, foggy weather" and lack of space. Leaflets cited "chronic infections" in Calle's bones and feet, as well as other health problems that afflict elephants in captivity.

The worst part of this campaign is that it works. People begin to wonder: Did the zoo mistreat the elephant?

How is the public supposed to know that Calle's health problems stemmed from her life before she came to the San Francisco Zoo? When Calle was a beast of burden in the entertainment industry in the early 1990s, a bad trailer accident in Mexico damaged a rear leg. That injury caused other problems as Calle shifted her weight onto her other legs. Calle contracted tuberculosis — from a person, it is true, so critics can blame captivity for the illness. But the zoo discovered the disease after Calle was moved here in 1997 and then spent a couple hundred thousand dollars treating her. No one should fault Calle's rescuer.

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Zoo spokesperson Nancy Chan scoffed at the claim that "temperate" San Francisco is too cold for the elephants. Both Asian and African elephants are exposed to winter weather. Remember that Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants on his way to Rome.

Calle's handlers concede that more space would be nice. They've worked at the zoo as it, like other zoos, has expanded and improved the animals' habitat, and they would have liked larger spaces for the critters.

But as Chan noted, while In Defense of Animals issued a "demand" that the zoo move Calle and the zoo's three other elephants to a sanctuary where they would have more room, there are problems with moving elephants. It might be traumatic to be taken from her long-term home. The transport, which is hard on an animal, would be costly. Also, there is no guarantee Calle would have fit in with the other sanctuary animals.

I'll add that Calle was so sick it was too late for a move — if someone came up with the elephant-sized purse it would have taken to transport her.

Without the zoo, Calle would have died long ago. Few carnivals could have spent the money needed to keep the pachyderm alive.

Zoo docent Diane Ward noted that in the wild, "the strongest survive. It's a matter of hierarchy." Many zoo animals live longer, healthier lives than their wild counterparts. Elephants in the wild often are poached or killed for eating farm crops. If they fall sick, there is no veterinarian to heal them.

Other wild animals become beasts of burden. Asian elephants have been domesticated for centuries; many haul timber for logging, while others carry people. So why did activists go after the zoo?

For one thing, when any group attacks a zoo, it garners headlines — something the animal-rights crowd lives for.

In Defense of Animals tries to promote itself as a friend to elephants, but it is really more anti-zoo than pro-pachyderm. It was part of a coalition that fought unsuccessfully to prevent the export of orphaned elephants from a Swaziland game park to American zoos — even as the park warned that the only alternative was to kill the animals. The anti-zoo coalition argued that the elephants could be moved to a sanctuary — but there are so many elephants in the region that game parks have been culling elephant herds in order to preserve habitat for the other animals.

The animal-rights advocates knew that if the elephants remained in Africa, the odds were the elephants would die. But here, ideology mattered more than the animals.

"The San Francisco Zoo must put the interests of the animals first," wrote In Defense of Animals. Quite a demand from a group that puts a headline before an animal's welfare. These people don't love animals — they hate zoos.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate