25 January 2011

In Defense of Animals calls for change after death of Knoxville Zoo elephant keeper

Following the tragic death of an elephant keeper at the Knoxville Zoo, In Defense of Animals (IDA) is urging all zoos holding elephants to adopt a management system that is safer for both the handlers and the animals.  The zoo (along with about half of the zoos in the country) was using a management system known as "free contact" at the time of the incident.

"Free contact" is a controversial and arguably unsafe method because it requires keepers to share the same physical space with the elephants while employing the use of a steel-tipped bullhook.  Handlers use that hook to prod and discipline the elephants, establishing dominance over them through a combination of negative and positive reinforcement and physical punishment. 

“In Defense of Animals disagrees with zoos on many issues concerning elephants,” said IDA Elephant Campaign Director Catherine Doyle, “but I hope we can agree that no one should lose their life caring for elephants. We must put keepers and elephants first by ending use of the unsafe and inhumane “free contact” management method.”

As a result of this most recent tragedy in Knoxville, IDA is urging the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to recommend the use of "protected contact" to all of its member zoos holding elephants.  In this humane management method, only positive reinforcement is used, and a protective barrier separates the elephant from the keeper at all times.  Risk of injury is removed, and there is still opportunity to provide the elephants with any necessary care or medical treatment.

“The AZA’s elephant policies leave the door wide open for more keeper injuries and deaths,” said Doyle. “It’s time to close that door forever by requiring all accredited zoos to practice protected contact elephant management.”

When the facts are considered, it's hard to disagree with IDA.  Since 1990, 31 keepers have been injured or killed by elephants, all of them in zoos using free contact, while no injuries or deaths have occurred in zoos using the protected contact method.  The most recent injury in a free-contact zoo occurred in Toledo in July 2010, when a keeper was gravely injured by an elephant he had known since the animal’s birth, proving that the free contact method can never really be relied upon.

“No other zoo employees are required to have the same level of unprotected contact with dangerous animals, especially an animal as massive and powerful as an elephant,” said Doyle. “There is no justification for zoos to continue using free contact when protected contact is a proven method that successfully prevents keeper injuries and deaths.”

For more information, please visit http://www.helpelephants.com/.

Stephanie DeBalko | @_stephanied_
Stephanie is a freelance writer who loves shelter dogs and Vegenaise. She can be found at Homespun by Stephanie.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/fkehren