Room to roam


POSTED: Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A California animal-rights group asserts that the Honolulu Zoo is no paradise for elephants, but a city official says the findings are wrong.

Sidney Quintal, director of the city Department of Enterprise Services, which includes the zoo, said yesterday the group In Defense of Animals never contacted the zoo prior to the release of an article on PR Newswire, ranking the zoo as one of the 10 worst for elephants in North America.

“;We take serious issue with the organization painting such an untrue issuance without having all the facts,”; Quintal said. “;We categorically think they're way off base.”;

Honolulu Zoo is “;no paradise for pachyderms,”; said the report by the San Rafael, Calif.-based nonprofit. “;Everything about the zoo's antiquated elephant exhibit is wrong: It crams two of the world's largest land mammals into a mere 6,000 square feet; lack of space for healthy movement is causing recurrent and painful foot disorders; keepers use inhumane circus-style training and bullhooks (used in training and handling); and it's taken more than 10 years to renovate the exhibit—which still is not done and would provide not even an acre of space.”;

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But the zoo's two female Indian elephants, Mari and Vaigai, are “;treated just like children,”; Quintal said. “;They're loved and nourished. ... Our elephants don't have foot problems, and we do not use bullhooks to discipline them. Our keepers are trained to use commands and rewards,”; not circus-style training.

He said a new 38,000-square-foot Asian Tropical Forest Elephant Exhibit will be built by late 2011 next to the gharial (a crocodilelike reptile) exhibit. The $6.2 million exhibit will be up for bid in mid-April, and “;all funding is in place,”; he said. It will include two filtrated 50,000-gallon pools, each 6 feet deep, and large trees for shade.

Catherine Doyle, who compiled the 10-worst list, told the Star- Bulletin yesterday that her report was not based on personal inspection of each zoo, but animal medical reports and city documents for the past two years. She added that In Defense of Animals has video on the staff's use of bullhooks, and city manuals advise the “;use of the hooks discreetly in front of the public.”;

“;We got e-mail and calls from people who said they saw the elephants swaying and rocking, which are indicative of distress; they're usually recognized as signs of poor welfare,”; Doyle said.

While the group says all zoos should follow the lead of India, which banned elephants in zoos last year, Doyle said acceptable zoo habitats have 40 to 75 acres for elephants to roam. Expanding the Honolulu exhibit would be “;a waste of money”; because the new quarters “;will be too small and outdated before it's done,”; she said.

The Honolulu Zoo has never been cited before in the six years the list has been compiled by the group, she said.