How much room do zoo elephants need?


PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — From 1997 to 2005, Dr. Blair Csuti worked in the Oregon Zoo’s conservation division. He told KOIN 6 News elephants in captivity just don’t have enough space.

“Lack of exercise and chained up most of the day, 16 hours in a small stall in their own excretion, that’s not conducive to foot health,” Csuti said.

Packy, the oldest and most famous of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

The Asian elephants at the Oregon Zoo — including the oldest and most famous, Packy — will soon have more room to roam when the zoo’s Elephant Lands opens this fall. Currently, there are seven elephants on 1.5 acres, but there will be an extra 4.5 acres for the elephants to roam when the expansion is completed.More space needed

The new exhibit will have feeders throughout the yards and hills, both improvements to help the elephants exercise.

About 190 dump trucks of sand will also be brought in to reduce foot problems, something that’s been an ongoing issue for elephants at the Oregon Zoo.

The new habitat will also have two yards, and Lee said the male elephants would be rotated “in and out of the herd” to keep from being too isolated.

Construction in progress for Elephant Lands at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

Oakland Zoo elephant curator Jeff Kinzley said that zoo had four elephants on 6.5 acres – fewer elephants in a bigger area than the Oregon Zoo is planning.

“We don’t have any abnormal issues that you do start to see, from overswaying, the constant stereotype that you see in the elephants that are more confined,” Kinzley told KOIN 6 News.

Kinzley and Csuti, who edited a book called “The Elephant’s Foot” plus other academic articles on the issue, said elephants need to walk at least five miles a day.

Csuti also said the upgraded Oregon Zoo exhibit should have had three yards, not two.  Two yards, he said, “limits the amount of hours that a male especially will have in an area to walk around.”

Medical records

In medical documents obtained by KOIN 6 News, notes indicate Rama exhibited stereotypical behaviors from December 2002. Among the reasons for stereotypical behavior is if an elephant is chained for a long time.

Oregon Zoo officials denied chaining elephants.

“The elephants are never chained,” Lee said.

But an animal advocate with Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants took a picture of Packy that seems to show a chain mark.

Tusko the elephant at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

Zoo officials said they did not know where that mark came from.

The advocacy group also has video of Packy bobbing his head in 2013.

KOIN 6 News obtained Packy’s medical records that show he suffered bouts of anemia during his treatment for tuberculosis. He lost about 500 pounds in May 2014.

In May 2014, zoo officials wrote, “We are now at Day 6 of anorexia and are getting increasingly concerned about this trend.”

A month before Packy had an abscess on his foot, which followed a mistake in his medicine administered in December 2013.

Those same medical records revealed several foot problems like fractures, abscesses and lesions repeatedly for the elephants over that six-year stretch.Packy’s medical notes from November 2013 through November 2014

Dr. Csuti said his recommendations on foot treatments for the elephants while he worked at the Oregon Zoo were mostly ignored.

A foot problem is visible on Shine, one of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

“The very first thing I was assigned to do was to organize and host a conference on foot conditions in captive elephants because the zoo has a history of having to put down elephants because of foot infections and arthritis,” he said.

While KOIN 6 News was at the zoo, foot problems became apparent on Shine, despite their treatment efforts.

Lee said the elephant “had an abscess started.”

Packy could only be seen from several feet away. Multnomah County health officials said that was due to his contagious tuberculosis.

When asked about a history of an abscess on his head and foot problems, Lee acknowledged an ulcer on Packy’s face cited in medical documents between 1999-2005.

“In the records, you’ll see talk about an ulceration on his head,” said Lee. “That’s from an old surgical sight that was probably 20 years old. Packy only lays down on his left side so he continually puts pressure on that every night when he lays down.”

Asked if Packy or any of the elephants have foot problems, Lee said, “We have the vet come down, they document everything. When they are looking at any issues with the elephants, we regularly look at them, work on them, give them the care and treatment that they need.”

But he said, generally, Packy is OK.

“Actually,” he said, “other than being geriatric and starting to slow down, he doesn’t have other medical issues.”In the next story, KOIN 6 News will look into the breeding program for elephants at the Oregon Zoo.Below are medical notes related to Rama for the year leading up to his death on March 30, 2015

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