Pittsburgh Zoo criticized for using dogs to herd elephants
November 10, 2014 12:00 AM
Elephants walk around at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium earlier this summer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into the zoo's treatment of its elephants after a complaint from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s use of dogs to herd its African elephants after receiving a complaint from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
“We have video footage [taken at] the Pittsburgh Zoo that very clearly shows the elephants exhibiting threat displays, in which their ears go out and they trumpet as the dogs go out, chase them and apparently nip at their feet,” said Brittany Peet, PETA’s deputy director of captive animal law enforcement in Washington, D.C.
“[Zoo employees are] training dogs to bite, chase and otherwise antagonize 15,000-pound elephants — animals that the Pittsburgh Zoo knows all too well are dangerous and unpredictable. It’s not just inhumane, to both the dogs and the elephants, it’s dangerous.”
Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s animal plant health inspection service in Maryland, said a review is under way. She noted that the USDA looks into every serious complaint it receives, whether it comes from an animal rights group or a private individual.
“We are looking into this to see what is going on at the zoo and whether or not they are in compliance with animal welfare act regulations. We’re in that process right now,” Ms. Espinosa said. “First, we will investigate whether the issue has already been addressed elsewhere. Then we will contact the facility, we will contact the complainant, and then we may conduct an unannounced focused inspection.”
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Zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray issued a statement defending the use of dogs, saying it was part of “providing the best care possible for our African elephants.”
“To advance and improve the care that we provide for our elephants, we introduced two Australian cattle dogs into our elephant program three years ago,” Ms. Gray said. “Both the dogs and elephants are working well together, and the dogs have been a wonderful addition to our program.
“The primary reason the herding dogs are working with our team is for the safety of our staff. These relationships can be thought of in terms of traditional shepherding practices. In this case, our primary elephant keeper, Willie Thieson, represents the shepherd; the elephants represent the flock; and the Australian cattle dogs assist the shepherd.”
Ms. Peet said the use of dogs is anything but safe.
“The next time a 15,000-pound elephant turns on her captors, a small dog isn’t going to stop her,” she said.
She also faulted the zoo’s handlers for their unprotected contact with the elephants.
“Over half of accredited zoos in this country use protected contact to manage elephants, in which handlers are separated from the animals with barriers and using positive reinforcement techniques,” Ms. Peet said. “Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Zoo is doubling down on their choice to continue using free contact by recklessly introducing dogs to an already dangerous dynamic between elephants and staff. … With two fatal animal attacks at the Pittsburgh Zoo since 2002, including one by an elephant that is still on exhibit, the Pittsburgh Zoo should be working to protect animals, employees and visitors by barring all direct contact with elephants and not experimenting with dogs’ lives.”
PETA originally filed its complaint with the state Fish and Game Commission, but that agency said it had no jurisdiction regarding zoo animals.
“We’ve determined that we lack any authority to regulate zoos. They are expressly exempted from needing a permit under the Game and Wildlife Code,” said spokesman Travis Lau. “And because they need no permit from the Game Commission to operate, their permit comes from [the USDA], and it’s that party that would regulate zoos and enforce the requirements of the permit. We really have nothing to do with it.”
In February, the USDA fined the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium $4,550 following an investigation into the November 2012 death of 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh, who was mauled by the zoo’s African painted dogs after he fell into their exhibit. The USDA ruled that the exhibit did not have sufficient distance and barriers between the animals and the general public.
While PETA is pursuing the matter through the USDA, it continues to push for action from the Game Commission.
“It’s very clear under state law that dogs are not permitted to chase or pursue wildlife such as elephants,” Ms. Peet said. “Just because a facility has a USDA license doesn’t mean that state laws don’t apply. State laws absolutely still apply to the Pittsburgh Zoo, and that’s why PETA is calling on the Fish and Game Commission to enforce the law and ensure that the Pittsburgh Zoo stops endangering animals and the public by allowing dogs to chase elephants.”
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has come under criticism for its handling of elephants before. In July 1989, a keeper suffered a broken leg, cuts and bruises when an elephant kicked him as he was about to give it medicine.
In November 2002, handler Mike Gatti, 46, of Butler was killed when a mother elephant pushed her head on his chest after he fell to the ground.
Still, Ms. Gray said the zoo stands by its handling of elephants.
“The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s elephant care program involves both restricted and unrestricted contact,” she said. “Both methods use vocal commands, praise and food rewards. If an elephant does not want to work with the keeper, the keeper leaves the area. We never punish our elephants for not cooperating.”
Ms. Peet said the zoo is clinging to an “old-school” approach when other methods are safer and work better.
“It’s positive reinforcement and protective barriers — not dogs — that keep employees safe,” she said, “and the Pittsburgh Zoo should follow the example of the San Diego Zoo, the North Carolina Zoo and the Oakland Zoo by allowing elephants to live free of fear and harassment.”
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1456.
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