Published stories from George Miller, a journalist, photographer, educator, carpenter, world traveler, dog-lover and home owner. You can reach him at

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Outta Here: Why the elephants are leaving Philadelphia

This is the cover story from the Philadelphia Weekly that is in boxes now:

BETTE SCOOPS UP THE 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 cottonball. Her floppy ears are tucked back, her mouth is slightly ajar and her dark, tiny eyes are wide, lively. Her ionic column-like legs are slightly bent - poised for action - and her front right hoof is raised in the air.

“Mom, this is great!” says Kyle Donnelly, 11, of Audobon, NJ. “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 dry, dirt field at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wanders around the edges of the 1/4-acre exhibit, her probing trunk reaching into the crevices of the rock-formation barrier on the perimeter of the grounds.

Where Petal is dignified, Dulary is chatty and Kallie will do anything for a treat, Bette is the plotter.

“We’re not sure what she’s plotting but she always seems to be plotting something,” says Andy Baker, the zoo’s animal manager.

Bette sniffs for hay on the rocks, slowly making her way from the far side of the exhibit to the front, and she stands directly in front of a group of young children maybe ten feet away.

She is stoic and still as little kids stop, stare, squeal, snap pictures and then scurry off.

A pair of squirrels dart past her on the rocks and she doesn’t flinch. A nearby lion roars and the New Jersey Transit line 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 first grade teacher, Chris Marshall. “Are they going to trade animals?”

“They’re moving to a space that is better for them,” Marshall responds melodiously, 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 little Jack Coons sprints off to see other animals, apparently not caring that he will probably never see another elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo ever again.

After nearly a decade of serious thought about the health and welfare of the elephants exhibited at the zoo, administrators decided that the iconic mammals are better off somewhere else.

Last month, the Philadelphia Zoo, which has maintained elephants since the it opened its gates in 1874, formally announced that the four female pachyderms will be shipped off in the spring. The three African elephants will go on permanent loan to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and Dulary, the lone endangered Asian elephant, will roam 2,000 acres at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.

The short answer for why the elephants are leaving is funding. The zoo doesn’t have the cash to replace the 65-year old elephant home and they don’t want to spend millions on a temporary fix that would quickly become obsolete.

“If you put it in terms of what is in the best interest of the elephants, the decision to move them really wasn’t that hard,” says Pete Hoskins, the former zoo president who stepped down in May after 13 years at the helm of America’s first zoo.

The decision to move the elephants was made about one year ago, Hoskins says, while he was still running the zoo.

“We knew that 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.”

However, the loss of the elephants - one of whom has been a member of the zoo family for nearly 50 years - goes beyond a simple cash shortfall.

It is a reflection of the evolving mission of zoos around the world. It speaks volumes about new understanding and appreciation of wild animals and their traits, as well as their needs.

And it is a monumental lesson for a financially strapped cultural institution that receives precious little economic support from the municipality it proudly represents.

The Philadelphia Zoo was chartered in 1859 but the onset of the Civil War delayed the actual creation of a facility. Fifteen years later, the zoo opened with more than 3,000 people paying the 25 cent admission fee to enter the complex which remained under construction.

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 a Frank Furness-designed entranceway was established on 42 acres of city-owned property but the zoo was - and continues to be - run as a private, non-profit company. The basic mission was to entertain and educate people about the world away 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 the first year of operation, the zoo averaged more than 1,000 visitors daily, an admirable figure considering that 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 there was no other way to permanently fund the operating costs of the zoo.

Even then, there was a constant battle between the economics of running the business and the altruism 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 who is writing a book about the cultural history of America’s zoos. “People want to go to zoos to see exotic animals doing interesting things close-up.”

It was necessary to draw visitors in order to earn money, and to draw visitors, the zoo’s role changed. Rather than serving the sciences, Hyson says, the zoo became more of a menagerie where people gawked at lonely, exotic animals trapped behind bars, in sterile, concrete cells.

In 1935, respected zoology professor Roderick Macdougal was selected to become the president of the Philadelphia Zoo. According to Hyson, Macdougal 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.”

Macdougal resigned in defeat less than two years later.

The idea of zoos as tourist-type 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 1960’s and early 1970’s. Since then, there has been a steady learning process and zoos have drastically changed their methods of exhibiting and housing their greatest assets.

“One hundred years ago, you went to the zoo and looked and pointed,” says Steve Feldman, the spokesperson for the 211-member Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “The zoo you visit now may not even be the same zoo you visited as a child.”

Modern zoos now present animals in naturalistic settings that mimic native habitats, with trees and rocks and lots of enrichment for the animals. Creating such displays, however, is a costly endeavor, especially when it comes to elephants, the largest animals on the planet.

Eleven American zoos, including Philadelphia’s, have recently eliminated their elephant exhibits or plan to do so in the near future, according to the AZA. Money is the primary issue in the majority of cases.

“We have these very high and rising standards for all animals, specifically elephants,” says Feldman.

The Philadelphia Zoo will save about $300,000 annually by not having to maintain the four elephants. The Maryland Zoo estimates that they will spend about $120,000 per elephant every year.

The Philadelphia Zoo wanted to create a new elephant savannah but estimates for a new facility were priced upwards of $22 million. Some money was raised but not nearly enough.

In the end, zoo officials could not 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 that the way elephants used to be kept – ten years ago, five years ago, even now – is not appropriate for the species.”

For instance, she says, elephants may wander up to 30 miles per day, and older more traditional zoo exhibits have merely fractions of acres for elephants.

“Elephants are migratory creatures,” Buckley states. “They immerse themselves in the habitat and they are forever engaged in everything about it.”

Zoos seem to acknowledge these recent findings and many now are creating elephant exhibits that incorporate long trails for the animals to travel. Feldman of the AZA reports that 40 American zoos are expanding 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 their elephant facility including the creation of a 3/4-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 the Friends of the Philly Zoo Elephants.

“But it still has the space constraints, the climate issues, and it doesn’t have the live vegetation that elephants thrive on.”
Bessey, who was banned from the Philadelphia Zoo in February after allegedly making threats towards former zoo president Pete Hoskins, now employs monitors, dubbed “Ele’s Angels,” who frequently check on the conditions of the local elephants.

“Now that the weather is getting colder and there’s not as many patron’s here, 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 is the fact that in August, 2005, Bettte and Dulary had a serious skirmish. Dulary was gored near her eye and now the African elephants and Dulary cannot be together. The Africans and Dulary rotate using the outdoor yard, meaning that the elephants only get about 4 hours outside every day.

The 20 hours per day inside the cement-floor barn, activists say, is damaging to the animals mental health. Elephants are believed to be among the most intelligent animals on the planet.

For a long time, the zoo did not disclose the names of the elephants because officials feared visitors would drive the giant animals crazy by screaming their names all the time. Elephants, you see, recognize their name. They 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, the 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 that they are matriarchal and they live in large packs. With that in mind, the AZA is encouraging 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, the captive animal specialist for the animal-activist group, PETA. “They are incredibly social animals. Its not uncommon to have herds of seven or eight elephants who are together forever.”

PETA is opposed to any wild animals being kept in captivity but the organization is happy to see Dulary going to the sanctuary, which, Wathne says, is the best option available to the 42-year old girl.

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 amongst 15 other Asian elephants.

“We are the band-aid solution for a horrific situation for an endangered species,” 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.”

Next spring, the sanctuary will be receiving two other elephants in addition to Dulary. But Buckley hopes that one day her services will no longer be required.

“We hope to put ourselves out of business,” she adds.

As part of the zoo master plan that was set into motion in 1996, the Philly elephants were supposed to get the grandest treatment possible for captive elephants.

There were to be two large, separate yards for African and Asian elephants, a new barn and a 1/4-mile trail that would meander through other animal exhibits. Along the trail, there were to be a forage area, mud baths and a dust bath area, according to Baker.

High off the success of building the PECO Primate Reserve in 1999, the zoo went into fund-raising mode for the new elephant savannah, which was expected to cost around $22 million.

Unfortunately, they were also trying to raise $20 million for a big cat exhibit. And they were 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.

Not to mention the standard capital improvements throughout the zoo that are necessary every year.
“You’re talking about a campaign that was in the $100 million range,” says Hoskins. “That’s a lot of money.”

Major donors were found for the cats, birds and the children’s zoo.

The elephants never had a chance.

“The reality was that to fight on all those fronts at once, fund raising-wise, was foolhardy,” Hoskins laments. “We just couldn’t raise that much money.”

Many zoos across the country actually receive funding from their municipal governments. The Denver Zoo gets about 50 percent of their capital budget from the city. The Seattle Zoo gets nearly 40 percent. The Pittsburgh Zoo receives about $6 million annually through direct taxes for the arts and culture. The zoos in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland all benefit from dedicated municipal levies.

The Philadelphia Zoo, since 1991, receives nothing from the city for their operating budget.


Since memberships, concession sales and other earned income cover only about 80 percent of the annual $25 million operating budget, administrators must beg private donors for as much as $8 million annually just to keep the zoo running.

The commonwealth only chips in about $900,000 yearly with money generated through the sale of zoo license plates.

Where other cultural outlets can bring in short-term exhibitions to draw crowds - remember Cezanne at the Art Museum in 1996? - the zoo must annually create new attractions, either through renovations or new construction. It is a constant battle to keep their dues-paying members interested for another year.

“Inherent in the zoo as an institution is this almost impossible tension between education and entertainment,” says Hyson, the professor.

The zoo averages spending around $7 million per year on capital projects and for the past few years, they have received nothing from the city.


“It is a struggle,” says Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “The city is not 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 realize that culture is a major economic catalyst for the city. According to Vik Dewan, the zoo’s current president, the $20 million Big Cat Falls project, which opened in May with 44,000 visitors that first weekend alone, will pour $50 million of spending into the region.

Even prior to the new exhibit, the zoo had about 1.2 million visitors in each of the last two years.

“Without our cultural institutions, we would just be another city,” Amsterdam says.

“By moving the elephants now, there is still the possibility down the road that elephants could be brought back,” Hoskins says. “That’s an option.”

There are long-term, not-fully-flushed out dreams of creating that elephant savannah at the south end of the zoo, where the current Children’s Zoo is. That would put the elephants near their African brethren – the wild dogs, the cheetahs, and all the residents of Carnivore Kingdom – in one large “Africa” display.

Of course, there would always still be the issue of paying for the elephant exhibit. The bird house and the new children’s zoo are not even fully funded yet and they are 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 that the shaky finances of the zoo, combined with the narrow physical constraints of the facility, means that 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, and it wasn’t very popular, was to move the chimpanzees,” says Hoskins.
“I’m not sure anybody even remembers it now.”

“Good bye 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!”

Where 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 dullness, with skin that sags 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 numerous cats.

The 50-year old pack leader often has dirt tossed onto her back, she regularly unleashes copious amounts of urine without warning and she regularly drops massive piles of dung all around the exhibit grounds.

And yet, there is a fierce attachment to the old girl and her herd.

“I like to come see the elephants,” says Gerri Bolden, a retired social worker from West Philadelphia who is studying to be a docent – a specialized volunteer - at the zoo.

Bolden says that she has been visiting the elephants regularly since she was a child. Her father was a janitor at a nearby synagogue (now a Baptist church) and he used to take her to the zoo on weekends.

“We would come every Easter,” she recalls. “In our Easter clothes.”

She continued that tradition by bringing her daughter every year, and then she visited annually with her four grandchildren.

She understands why the elephants are leaving – it was explained in a special lecture given to the aspiring docents – and she says she will survive their departure.

“I will be visiting them in Maryland,” she says. “I’ll go down and check up on them.”


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