An Elephant's Never Forgotten
Why the city's about to lose its largest residents.
From the November 8, 2006 Philadelphia Weekly
Bette scoops up the rubber tire with her tusks and jerks her head back, yanking the metal chain securing the tire to the ground. Her long trunk rises regally into the air and the tire wafts up, momentarily resting above her head. Then she catches the tire on her tusks.
An 8,000-pound African elephant, Bette seems happy, like a kitten batting around a cotton ball. Her floppy ears are tucked back, her mouth is slightly ajar and her dark, tiny eyes are wide and lively. Her ionic column-like legs are slightly bent - poised for action - and her front right foot is raised in the air.
"Mom, this is great!" says Kyle Donnelly, 11, a visitor from Audubon, N.J. "We usually don't see them doing this much."
Bette tugs the chain a few more times and then plunks the tire down to the ground. She backs up slowly across the zoo's dry dirt field, and then wanders around the edges of the quarter-acre exhibit, her probing trunk reaching into the crevices of the rock-formation barrier on the perimeter of the grounds.
Petal is dignified, Dulary is chatty and Kallie will do anything for a treat. But Bette is the plotter.
"We're not sure what she's plotting, but she always seems to be plotting something," says the zoo's animal manager Dr. Andrew Baker.
Bette sniffs for hay on the rocks, slowly making her way from the far side of the exhibit to the front. She stands before a group of young children maybe 10 feet away.
She's stoic and still as little kids stop, stare, squeal and snap pictures before scurrying off.
Squirrels dart past her on the rocks, but she doesn't flinch. A nearby lion roars, and an Amtrak train rumbles on the tracks about 100 yards behind her.
Jack Coons, 7, and a few of his first-grade classmates from the Wilmington Friends School sidle up to the exhibit and lazily lean against the chipped black metal railing in front of Bette.
"Why are they taking the elephants away?" Jack asks his teacher Christina Marshall. "Are they going to trade animals?"
"They're moving to a space that's better for them," Marshall responds sweetly. "It's a good thing."
Jack seems bored as he listens to the response. He hangs from the railing with his back to the elephants.
Then he sprints off, apparently not caring he'll probably never see another elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo again.
After nearly a decade of debate about the health and welfare of the elephants living in Philadelphia, it's been decided they're better off somewhere else.
Last month the Philadelphia Zoo, which has kept elephants since it opened in 1874, announced the four female pachyderms in its custody will be shipped off in the spring. The three African elephants will go to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, while Dulary, the lone endangered Asian elephant, will roam on 2,000 acres at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.
Why are they leaving? The short answer is funding.
The zoo doesn't have the cash to replace its 65-year-old elephant habitat, and it doesn't want to spend millions on a fix that could quickly become obsolete.
"If you put it in terms of what's in the best interest of the elephants, the decision to move them really wasn't that hard," says Pete Hoskins, zoo president for 13 years until he stepped down in May.
According to Hoskins the decision was made about a year ago.
"We knew we couldn't continue to provide the highest standards at that site," he says. "No matter how much you love those elephants and no matter how much you want them to be with you, the only right thing to do is to move them to where they can get those standards."
But the loss of the elephants - one of whom has been with the zoo for nearly 50 years - goes beyond money. It speaks volumes about a new understanding and appreciation of wild animals - their traits and their needs, and of the evolving mission of zoos around the world.
The Philadelphia Zoo was chartered in 1859, but the Civil War delayed construction of a facility. Fifteen years later the zoo opened to more than 3,000 people, who each paid 25 cents to enter the complex.
On display were 200 mammals, 67 birds and 15 reptiles.
An elephant chained to a tree is said to have been among the inaugural attractions.
The Victorian complex, with its Frank Furness-designed entryway, was established on 42 acres of city-owned property. But the zoo itself was - and continues to be - run as a private, nonprofit company.
The basic mission was to entertain and educate people about worlds far from their own. It was to be a scientific institution as well as an ornament for the city.
"It was a pretty enlightened mission from the beginning," Baker says.
During its first year of operation the zoo averaged more than 1,000 visitors daily, an admirable figure considering it included the cold winter months. The idea of making the complex free to the public was debated during the first few years. But ultimately it was decided an admission charge was the only way to permanently fund operating costs.
Even then, there was a constant battle between the economics of running the business and the altruistic mission of educating the public about nature.
"What winds up happening over the first generation is what happens at a lot of zoos - the ambitions of the founders and directors run up against the realities of public perception," says Jeffrey Hyson, a St. Joseph's University professor now writing a book about zoos. "People want to go to zoos to see exotic animals doing interesting things close up."
The zoo needed to draw visitors to earn money, but its need to draw visitors also altered the zoo's role. Rather than educating people about animals, Hyson says the zoo became more of a menagerie, where people gawked at lonely exotic creatures trapped behind bars in sterile concrete cells.
In 1935 respected zoology professor Roderick Macdonald became the zoo's director. According to Hyson, Macdonald declared, "The zoo is not merely a menagerie where people may be amused by the spectacle of a monkey scratching himself and eating peanuts."
Rather, he thought of the institution, "as a zoological university where biology would be offered for contemplation by all."
Macdonald resigned in defeat less than two years later.
The idea of zoos as touristy spectacles continued for nearly a century, Baker says. While the concepts of conservation and preservation had previously existed, they didn't catch on until the late '60s and early '70s. Since then there's been an ongoing learning process, and zoos have drastically changed their methods of exhibiting and housing their greatest assets.
"A hundred years ago you went to the zoo and looked and pointed," says Steve Feldman of the 214-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). "The zoo you visit now may not even be the same zoo you visited as a child."
Modern zoos present animals in settings that mimic native habitats, with trees and rocks and lots of enrichment for the animals. But creating such displays is expensive, especially when it comes to elephants, the largest land animals on the planet.
Eight American zoos, including Philadelphia's, have either recently eliminated their elephant exhibits or plan to do so soon, according to the AZA. Money is the primary issue in most of the cases.
"We have these very high and rising standards for all animals - specifically elephants," says Feldman.
Officials at the Philadelphia Zoo say they'll put the $400,000 they annually spend on the elephants toward other costs. The Maryland Zoo estimates they'll spend about $120,000 per elephant every year.
The Philadelphia Zoo wanted to create a new elephant savannah, but estimates for a new facility exceeded $22 million. Some money was raised, but not nearly enough.
In the end zoo officials couldn't justify keeping elephants in the outdated facility that was built at the start of World War II.
"The trend is changing," says Carol Buckley, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee where Dulary will soon reside. "Organizations like zoos are learning more about elephants, and recognizing the way elephants used to be kept - 10 years ago, five years ago, even now - isn't appropriate for the species."
For instance, she says, elephants may wander up to 30 miles a day, and older, more traditional zoo exhibits have only a few acres for elephants.
"Elephants are migratory creatures," she explains. "They immerse themselves in the habitat, and they're forever engaged in everything about it."
Zoos are coming around to these recent findings, and many are creating elephant exhibits incorporating long trails for the animals to travel.
The AZA's Feldman reports 40 American zoos are now improving or have plans to build new elephant exhibits.
"It was a slow catch-up on knowledge, and an even slower catch-up on the facilities," Buckley says.
The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is spending $16 million to update its elephant facility, including the creation of a three-quarter-mile trek with water stations, scratching posts and dust baths.
"Maryland is definitely not as bad as the Philly zoo," says Marianne bessey, founder of Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants. "But it still has the space constraints, the climate issues, and it doesn't have the live vegetation elephants thrive on."
Bessey, who was banned from the Philadelphia Zoo in February after allegedly making threats toward former zoo president Pete Hoskins, now employs monitors, dubbed Ele's Angels, who frequently check the local elephants' conditions.
"Now that the weather is getting colder and there aren't as many patrons, they don't clean up the manure as often," reports an "angel" who asks to be called "Ann" so as not to reveal herself to the zoo's staff. "The last time I was here, I wanted to lose my lunch the smell was so bad."
Compounding the plight of the elephants at the Philadelphia Zoo was a well-publicized skirmish between Bette and Dulary in August of last year. Dulary was gored near her eye, and now Dulary and the African elephants are separated. Dulary rotates use of the outdoor yard with the other elephants, meaning they all get only about four hours outside every day. Activists say the 20 hours a day the elephants spend inside the cement-floor barn jeopardizes their mental health.
Elephants are thought to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet.
For a long time the zoo didn't disclose the elephants' names because officials feared visitors would confuse the giant animals by repeatedly calling to them when the elephants were used to only their trainers using their names. (Elephants not only recognize their names, but can even recognize themselves in mirrors, according to a Bronx Zoo study released last week.)
"Zoos need to put more emphasis on the biological and psychological needs of the species," says Suzanne Roy, program director of the activist group In Defense of Animals. "If they can't, they shouldn't have those species."
Another recently accepted notion about elephants is they're matriarchal and live in large herds. With that in mind, the AZA encourages zoos to increase the size of their herds to make the animals more comfortable.
"In the wild, female elephants stay with their mothers for life," says Lisa Wathne, captive animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA. "They're incredibly social animals. It's not uncommon to have herds of seven or eight elephants who are together forever."
PETA opposes keeping any wild animals in captivity, but the organization is happy to see Dulary headed to the sanctuary, which Wathne says is the best option available to the 42-year-old female.
The sanctuary features spring-fed ponds, valleys, pastures, forests, rolling hills, a subtropical climate, a 10-month growing season, live vegetation year round, heated barns and three scheduled feedings daily on a massive compound surrounded by 20 miles of fencing. Dulary will live among 15 other Asian elephants.
"We're the Band-Aid solution for a horrific situation for an endangered species," the sanctuary's Buckley says. "The solution is to preserve the native habitats and let these animals live where they thrive - which is in the wild, not in captivity."
This spring the sanctuary will receive two other elephants in addition to Dulary. But Buckley hopes one day her services will no longer be needed.
"We hope to put ourselves out of business," she says.
As part of the zoo's master plan that was set in motion in 1996, the elephants were supposed to get the best treatment possible for captive elephants. They entertained visions of two large separate yards for African and Asian elephants, a new barn and a trail that would meander through other animal exhibits.
High off the success of building the PECO Primate Reserve in 1999, the zoo went into fundraising mode for the new elephant savannah, which was expected to cost around $22 million.
At the same time they were attempting to raise $20 million for a big cat exhibit. They were also trying to come up with the same amount for a grand new bird house, and they needed another $20 million to create a children's zoo. All this on top of the regular capital improvements that are needed each year.
"You're talking about a campaign that was in the $100 million range," says Hoskins.
Major donors were found for the cats, the birds and the children's zoo.
The elephants never had a chance.
"The reality was that to fight on all those fronts at once, fundraising-wise, was foolhardy," Hoskins laments. "We just couldn't raise that much money."
Many zoos across the country receive funding from their municipal governments. The Seattle Zoo gets nearly 40 percent of its operating revenues, and the Pittsburgh Zoo receives about $3 million annually through direct taxes for the arts and culture sector. The zoos in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland all benefit from dedicated municipal levies.
Since 1991, the Philadelphia Zoo has received no money from the city. Zero. But it does get its water for free. The commonwealth also chips in about $900,000 a year through various acts of legislation.
Since memberships, concession sales and other earned income cover only about 75 percent of the zoo's annual $25 million operating budget, administrators must beg private donors for as much as $6 million a year just to keep the zoo running.
While other cultural outlets can bring in short-term exhibitions to draw crowds - remember the bonanza of Cezanne at the Art Museum in 1996? - the zoo must keep creating new attractions through renovations or new construction. It's a constant battle to keep dues-paying members interested.
Last year the zoo spent $12 million on various projects. This year it's scheduled to spend $5 million.
"It is a struggle," says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. "The city isn't supporting arts and culture in the way it should."
Amsterdam wants business leaders and representatives in City Hall to stand up for the arts, and to realize culture is a major economic catalyst for the city. Current zoo president Vik Dewan says the $20 million Big Cat Falls project, which opened in May with 44,000 visitors the first weekend alone, will pour $50 million into the region.
Even before the new exhibit, the zoo had about 1.2 million visitors in each of the last two years.
"Without our cultural institutions, we'd just be another city," Amsterdam says.
"By moving the elephants now, there's still the possibility down the road that elephants could be brought back," Hoskins says. "That's an option."
There are long-term, not fully fleshed-out dreams of creating that elephant savannah at the south end of the zoo, where the Children's Zoo is now located. That would put the elephants near their African brethren - the wild dogs, the cheetahs, the giraffes and the zebras - in one large Africa display.
Of course there'd still be the issue of paying for the elephant exhibit. The bird house and the new Children's Zoo aren't even fully funded yet, and they're next on the construction list.
"For the next three to five years, our heads are down trying to create the two exhibits on our plate," Dewan says.
And the reality is the zoo's shaky finances, combined with the facility's narrow physical constraints, means the big, affable creatures are probably gone for good.
Activists will take credit, elephant lovers will shed tears and life will go on.
It's happened before.
"One of the first decisions I made as president," says Hoskins, "and it wasn't very popular, was to move the chimpanzees."
"I'm not sure anybody even remembers it now."
"Goodbye, elephants!" two women and three small children scream in high-pitched unison as the women push strollers past the elephant house. "We wish you could stay!"
While Dumbo was cute and funny, Babar was adventurous and wise, and Stampy - Bart Simpson's prize pachyderm from a radio contest - was a lovable lumbering bruiser, most elephants are rather boring and, well, kind of ugly.
Petal, for instance, is a monstrous mass of monochromatic gray, with skin sagging over her broken tusks, wrinkles all over her Jabba the Hutt-like figure, a few strands of straggly black hair dangling at the end of her long, wrinkly tail, and just enough chin hair to make you think of somebody's crazy old aunt who has conversations with her cats.
The 50-year-old herd leader often tosses dirt onto her own back, regularly unleashes copious amounts of urine without warning and drops massive piles of dung all around the exhibit grounds.
And yet there's a fierce attachment to the old girl and her herd.
"I like to come see the elephants," says Gerri Bolden, a retired case worker from North Philadelphia who's studying to be a specialized zoo volunteer.
Bolden says she's been visiting the elephants since she was a kid. Her father was a janitor at a nearby synagogue, and he used to take her to the zoo on weekends.
"We'd come every Easter," she recalls. "In our Easter clothes."
She continued that tradition by bringing her daughter every year, and then her four grandchildren.
She understands why the elephants are leaving - it was explained in a special lecture given to the aspiring volunteers. She says she'll survive their departure.
"I'll be visiting them in Maryland," she says. "I'll go down and check up on them."