What’s Best for Pittsburgh Zoo’s Elephants?

The Pittsburgh Zoo and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) are apparently locked in a dispute over the standards of care for elephants.

In its August 17th 2015 media release, the Pittsburgh Zoo CEO said the zoo was discontinuing its membership in the AZA after 29 years. Dr. Barbara Baker, President & CEO is quoted as saying, The Pittsburgh Zoo believes very strongly that decisions regarding our Zoo’s animals must be made by the professionals who are knowledgeable about the institution’s programs and staff and specifically trained to handle our animals. In the Pittsburgh tradition, we embrace this core principle and philosophy.

AZA officials countered with the AZA is disappointed that Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has decided their status quo was preferable to complying with the AZA’s more rigorous occupational safety standards related to caring for elephants. They were a 29 year member of AZA, and the AZA and the AZA Accreditation Commission had been hopeful they would elect to comply with the revised occupational safety standards.

I don’t pretend to know all of the details that led up to this dispute, but it does remind me of a time when, as Deputy Director of the Toledo Zoo in the 1990’s, my elephant staff strongly resisted a new trend in the zoo business toward a type of elephant management known as “protected contact”. Instead of entering an elephant enclosure with an elephant hook and giving commands, as elephant handlers had been doing for generations, the protected contact method would have elephants trained from outside the enclosure. It was considered much safer for the handlers and just as effective for the elephants, but my staff preferred being in with their animals, even if there was an element of danger involved. Now, 20 years later, it has become standard operating procedure – except, apparently, in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s claim that decisions regarding their animals must be made by their staff flies in the face of having national standards. It is the same logic that allowed zoos to keep elephants in substandard conditions long after they should have known better and it is the same argument that private animal keepers and roadside zoos use today – “I know what is best for my animals. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.” Doing what is best for animals should not be up to individual interpretation.

AZA accreditation standards have been worked out by multidisciplinary teams of professionals to ensure a safe working environment for staff and excellent quality care for the animals. It is a comprehensive program that considers every aspect of animal care from facilities to nutrition to veterinary care. Some zoos might chafe at having a committee of so-called experts tell them what to do. But when tragedy strikes, every accredited zoo ducks under the AZA umbrella for support. “We meet all national standards”, they will say.

I have to agree with the online editorial by the The Tribune-Review :
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s split with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) over whether zookeepers should be near elephants without potentially lifesaving barriers raises doubts about whether the zoo really puts safety first.

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