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Elephants off limits to visitors

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium reopened Tuesday, but the elephants were off limits to the public the day after a three-ton mother elephant crushed a handler during an unrestricted walk through the park.

The zoo halted those walks yesterday and restricted most other human contact with its three adult female elephants and two calves. The zoo also is investigating a report of aggressive behavior by the mother elephant last Saturday that ended with her being pushed into a pond by two other adult elephants.

Several visitors called zoo officials Monday afternoon to report that they had seen the elephant that killed Michael Gatti, 46, get pushed into a pond on Saturday by the two other adult elephants, said zoo director Dr. Barbara Baker, a veterinarian. Zoo officials did not know about the incident until the visitors called, Baker said.

"Obviously this is quite interesting to us in trying to determine why she did what she did on Monday," she said.

The death of Gatti, of Butler has sparked a debate over whether the zoo should continue its free-contact program in which handlers use close physical contact to manage the elephants.

Several other major zoos instituted permanent safety changes after elephants killed their handlers, creating protected contact programs, in which a barrier exists between the keeper and the elephant. One leading animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said free-contact programs are too dangerous.

"Given the fact that since 1990, 59 people have been killed and more than 120 others seriously injured by captive elephants, it is irresponsible for the zoo to allow keepers to continue using an outdated and dangerous form of elephant management that includes walks outside enclosures, direct physical contact, circus-type shows and, in some cases, public rides," Jane Garrison, PETA elephant specialist, wrote Baker yesterday.

Zoo officials maintain that the free-contact program is one reason its breeding program for captive elephants has been so successful. Captive births are rare and the zoo has had two elephant births since 1999.

Zoo officials tried to determine yesterday how long the elephant section will be closed, and whether limits on contact between the elephants and handlers will remain permanent.

"Those decisions are all tied up in us looking further into this incident and what caused it," zoo spokeswoman Rachel Capp said.

Zoo officials yesterday checked blood drawn from the 20-year-old mother to determine if there is a health problem.

Visitors said that on Saturday, the mother elephant had disciplined the two calves in the display area, Baker said. The two adults then pushed the mother into the pond.

The mother elephant was involved in another incident in February that resulted in a handler being injured in the elephant barn, Baker said.

The mother had disciplined another elephant's calf by "popping her in the head with her trunk," Baker said. The other adult became angry and pushed the mother as a handler — whom Baker declined to identify — led the mother to a "time-out corner" in the barn, Baker said.

The mother fell on the handler, whose leg was bruised, Baker said. The mother did not appear to know that the worker was even in the room, Baker said.

"He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Baker said.

The Allegheny County Coroner's Office yesterday ruled Gatti's death an accident, caused by massive injuries, and Pittsburgh police and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration continued their investigations.

"Obviously this is a real special circumstance, but we will try to determine what caused the fatality and what can be done to try to prevent any reoccurrence," said Robert Szymanski, area director for the Pittsburgh office of OSHA, which probes all workplace deaths.

Gatti and another handler, Amos Morris, were leading the African elephant and its 3-year-old calf on a daily walk through the grounds about 15 minutes before the zoo was to open. Suddenly, the 6,200-pound mother knocked Gatti to the ground and used its head to push and roll him about 35 feet along a pathway.

Zoo officials said the attack was the first fatality involving an employee in the Highland Park facility's 104-year history. Officials said they had no plans to destroy the animal, as it is important to the zoo's breeding program.

The elephants have been confined to the elephant barn, which is equipped with large pillars spaced far enough apart that handlers can touch the animals, but the elephants cannot get through, Capp said. Since Monday, handlers are not permitted in the pens.

Those pillars and other safety features — such as remote-controlled doors between the animals' pens — were installed when the barn was built in 1998.

Officials at the San Diego Zoo developed the protected-contact program after an elephant killed a 27-year-old handler in March 1991. Two years later an elephant at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., killed a 24-year-old handler in an incident similar to Gatti's death, OSHA records show.

The Tampa zoo got rid of its elephants following that death, but is now building a $1 million barn for elephants that will have the pillars and doors necessary for the protected-contact system, said zoo spokeswoman Trisha Ritchie.

Chuck Doyle, the general curator at Rosamont Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, N.Y., said the best program is one that incorporates both free- and protected contact.

"The most recent trend is to look at the continuum of contact and institute both," said Doyle, who teaches elephant management for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "We have an adult male elephant here that has shown aggression toward people, so we use protected-contact with him. But our handlers go into the pens with the female elephants and take them for walk as part of the free-contact program."

Garrison, with the Norfolk, Va.-based PETA, argues that there is no in-between.

"The only way to protect the handlers and the elephants is to use protected-contact," said Garrison, who said she has studied elephants in the wild in Asia and Africa and in captivity.

Zoo officials said the walks that handlers take elephants on as part of the free-contact system are necessary exercise for the animals. Doyle agreed, but Garrison said the walks are unsafe, as shown in Monday's death.

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