Zoos deny mistreatment of Philly elephants

Officials with the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Zoos responded today to allegations that the two former Philadelphia Zoo elephants, Bette and Kallie, are not receiving adequate or humane careat a Western Pennsylvania wildlife sanctuary.

In an interview with Inquirer reporter Peter Mucha, officials strongly denied accusations about the elephants' treatment.

"The group making the most recent allegations is misrepresenting the care that Bette and Kallie are receiving and is not qualified to evaluate their care or health," said Dana Lombardo, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Zoo.

A spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Zoo, which oversees the sanctuary, called the charges "ludicrous."

Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week that the two pachyderms, along with a bull elephant named Jackson owned by the Pittsburgh Zoo, were getting insufficient care at the International Conservation Center in Somerset, Pa.

Prolonged periods of confinement, restricted access to water, and lack of stimulating activities were cited as the main concerns.

The USDA acknowledged receiving the complaint, and said an inspector would check conditions at the center, and then a decision would be made as to further investigation.

Outside City Hall on Wednesday, four members of FPZE, a five-year-old group, worked to get out their message, distributing fliers near a table with signs and two stuffed toy elephants.

"These are beautiful creatures that deserve to be treated humanely and with respect," said Amy Somers, an attorney who recently joined the group.

"The overwhelming majority of people have no clue what's going on, and they're shocked to learn the facts about the elephants," said Marianne Bessey, an attorney and FPZE's volunteer director. "We're getting a lot of people who are concerned."

The zoos differ about the facts.

Bette and Kallie were transferred to the sanctuary in July 2009, because they'd have more space, the Philadelphia Zoo announced last year.

"We did what we thought was right for the animals," Vikram Dewan, the zoo's chief executive officer, said shortly after the move. "This place is already a great home for them, and we have the opportunity to work with a world-renowned staff with a real commitment to elephants."

"The ICC elephant care exceeeds the USDA regulations and recommendations," said Connie George, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Zoo.

An inspection is nothing to fear, especially since the USDA just conducted one last month, she said.

"They're required by law to investigate even the most ludicrous accusations," George said.

Was she saying this complaint was "ludicrous"?

"Yes, I am," George said.

Recently, 149 elephant experts from 29 states and five countries came to tour the sanctuary and learn how it cares for elephants, she said.

The creatures have lots of space, logs and tree trunks to manipulate, and "water all night long," she said.