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The Experts Weigh In On Elephant Attack at Toledo Zoo

August 3rd, 2010 by Nicole Meyer

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Closeup of a Bullhook

Closeup of a Bullhook

Zoos often use “spin” to give their interpretation of an event in order to sway public opinion or maintain a particular image. Spin is exactly what the Toledo Zoo attempted to do after the July 1 attack on keeper Don RedFox by a seven-year-old African elephant named Louie. RedFox was gravely injured in the incident. If it wasn’t spin, it calls into question the knowledge that zoo experts possess when it comes to elephant behavior.

At a July 21 press conference, Toledo Zoo Director Barbara Baker, accompanied by an expert hired by the zoo, suggested that rather than an attack on RedFox, Louie had been “sparring” with him, and that he may have been “play fighting.” She explained, “It’s not a very equal sparring match,” noting that Louie weighs 4,000 pounds. At least one major media outlet came away from the press conference with the message that Louie’s behavior was “normal young elephant activity.”

Yet every independent expert IDA consulted with disagreed with the zoo experts. Dr. Joyce Poole, who has studied African elephant behavior and communication for more than 30 years, just released her expert assessment of the incident. After viewing the video of it, she says that Louie clearly was not displaying play behaviors. Dr. Poole states:

“It is, furthermore, our perspective that the various statements and reactions from the zoo community are a public relations exercise rather than a real effort to explain, truthfully and accurately, what took place in Louie’s small stall. Based on decades-long experience, our viewpoint is that Louie was not behaving in a playful manner toward Mr. RedFox and neither was he exhibiting sparring behavior. Rather, the video shows Louie acting with intention to harm. That he was doing so is yet another reason for us to urge the zoo community to rethink the keeping of elephants captive.”

>You can see the video and read Dr. Poole’s full statement and letter to Barbara Baker here.

Animal behaviorists with the company Active Environments also weighed in with their assessment of the incident, with a focus on the “free contact” elephant management system used by the Toledo Zoo. In free contact, the keeper must dominate the elephant at all times and uses negative reinforcement to achieve this. Handlers use the steel-pointed bullhook, a device resembling a fireplace poker, to prod, hook and strike elephants and force compliance with commands. Even when not in use, the bullhook is a constant reminder of the physical punishment that can be delivered at any time, for any reason.

According to the Active Environments statement:

“The video dramatically illustrates the purpose, and meaning of the bull hook to both trainer and elephant.  Much effort has been expended by Free Contact (FC) proponents to downplay the nature and purpose of the bull hook. The renaming of the bull hook to “guide” was the most blatant (and brilliant) public relations maneuver to achieve this objective. Statements are frequently made about the gentle use of the hook and that it doesn’t hurt and it is hardly even needed. Yet, when the trainer was chased out of the stall, he immediately went to get his bull hook to gain control over Louie.  And the presence of the hook caused Louie to immediately assume an extremely submissive posture.”

So why would the Toledo Zoo “spin” the story? The first line of a report in the Toledo Blade says it all: “The Toledo Zoo’s star elephant, “Baby Louie,” isn’t quite so cute these days.” Not only do zoos rely on elephants as major attractions – young elephants typically draw large crowds and increased revenue – it also wanted to divert attention away from its use of archaic and inhumane elephant management practices that were being rightfully attacked by groups like IDA.

In the reports that immediately followed the attack, the zoo focused on the “special relationship” between RedFox and Louie. News stories reported that he supervised Louie’s conception, attended his birth and worked with him ever since. In one report, the zoo’s hired expert, who viewed the video before it was made public, never even addressed the aggression that Louie displayed, and instead directed the story to the positive interactions between RedFox and the elephant, saying that it was “akin to a parent tending to a young child” and “much like a father-son” bond. He dismissively called the incident “a fluke at this particular time.” In a later story he opined that it didn’t appear that Louie intended to seriously harm RedFox.

It’s important to note that during this time the zoo also underplayed the extent of RedFox’s injuries, which were life threatening.

In the last six years of IDA’s campaigns for elephants in zoos, we can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard representatives from zoos and from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) adamantly declare that any decisions regarding elephants should be left only to them because they’re “the experts.” They constantly send this message to the media, the public and elected officials. In the case of the Toledo Zoo, either the zoo experts were way off the mark in their assessment of Louie’s behavior, or they put their integrity aside and substituted “spin” for the truth. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for elephants in zoos.