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Sunday, October 30, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Attacks Prompt Elephant-Care Crisis At Zoos, Circuses

Los Angeles Times

LOUISVILLE - Four months after an 8,000-pound elephant at the Louisville Zoo tried to do a headstand on his chest, Troy Ramsey is willing to forgive the creature that left him without a spleen, two-thirds of his pancreas and the ability to earn a living.

But the 28-year-old machinist is suing zoo authorities and the animal's owner and handler for allegedly losing control of Kenya, the female African elephant that attacked him June 29.

Ramsey was visiting the zoo when Kenya wandered away from her barn and picked him up and smashed him to the ground, then tried to gore him with her tusks.

"You can't keep an elephant pent up in chains and expect it to be right in the head," said Ramsey, who has been studying the subject since his injury. "Elephants are intelligent animals and, knowing they are not in their natural environment, don't want to be there. It must be a private hell for them."

Until recently, most elephant owners and managers dismissed such arguments as ill-informed, even anthropomorphic (attributing human characteristics to an animal).

But not anymore. Elephant attacks are on the rise, prompting hand-wringing and soul-searching among officials at zoos and circuses across the nation over how to better manage these intelligent, powerful, moody and misunderstood giants.

Since 1976, 21 people, most of them handlers and trainers in zoos and circuses, have been killed by elephants in the United States, according to a study conducted by the National Zoo in Washington.

An average year will see at least one of the 600 people who work with elephants in the United States killed by an elephant in captivity. Statistically, that makes elephant handling the most dangerous profession in the nation, three times more hazardous than coal mining.

No one can say with certainty why even elephants that have been docile for years suddenly can turn against their handlers. And elephant experts, who typically establish superiority over these creatures through discipline and a constant air of confidence, concede they do not know what elephants think or how to prevent them from hurting humans.

What they do know about elephants is that they are highly intelligent social animals that travel long distances in herds - a situation that exists nowhere in the nation for captive elephants and that no zoo or circus could afford to provide.

HANDS-OFF STRATEGY

Facing bad publicity, soaring liability costs and increasing calls for better safeguards, the latest trend for handlers is to stay behind iron bars and gates with minimal contact with the animals. But this hands-off strategy may exacerbate other problems, such as what to do when a captive elephant gives birth and then tries to kill its offspring.

Others are getting out of the high-maintenance, expensive elephant business altogether. No wonder. Federal laws banning importation of elephants have pushed the average cost of an elephant, which are frequently traded among zoos, circuses and private owners, to $100,000.

Liability insurance for an elephant runs $25,000 a year.

A zoo or circus without elephants? Some circus officials predict only the five largest circuses will offer elephant acts in 10 years.

"The way that elephants are being kept in captivity in a lot of cases is contrary to how they should be kept for their well-being," said Alan Roocroft, chief elephant handler at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "If they are not allowed to move adequate distances during the day, for example, they are not fulfilling their requirements as an organism."

The results of confinement and deprivation, he added, can include "abnormal behavior, physical problems, aggression."

REBELLION

Some animal-welfare activists say they think the nation's aging population of elephants are actively rebelling against a life of torment at the hands of their taskmasters.

"Elephants are fighting back against the chains, restricted movement, harsh treatment and boredom," said Pat Derby, director of a California group called the Performing Animal Welfare Society.

"At the same time, elephant owners know that people are watching them more closely these days, so they are reluctant to punish their elephants in public," she said.

"That is opening windows of opportunity for elephants to lash out. It's almost like they know that now is the time to fight back."

Most zoo curators and circus owners would not go that far. However, John Lehnhardt, assistant curator at the National Zoo, acknowledged that "it is possible that the aggression that comes to some elephants is motivated by the conditions they live in."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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