Zoos admit ‘optimal’ care for elephants not the priority

Thursday, October 20, 2005
Sydney, Australia
Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo plan to keep eight new Asian elephants in city zoos rather than larger open range facilities, because Australian regulations do not demand they be kept in optimal, or the absolute best available, conditions.
This admission was made during closing remarks yesterday by Senior Counsel for the zoos, Dr John Griffiths, when Administrative Appeals Tribunal President the Honourable Justice Downes asked him to explain why the elephants (intended for importation into Australia from Thailand) were not destined for Western Plains Zoo (NSW) or Werribee Zoo (VIC).

This followed startling testimony given earlier in the hearing when, Gary Miller, Elephant Manager for the Zoological Parks Board of New South Wales, said if it was his decision he would have imported the elephants to Dubbo not Taronga as it provides a better environment for them.

Responding to a question from Senior Counsel for the animal welfare groups, Stephen Rares, “If it was your decision would you have picked Dubbo?” Gary Miller said, “If it was my decision from ground one-absolutely.”

Stephen Rares: “Because it provides a far better environment?” Gary Miller: “Correct”.

During the hearing Taronga Zoo CEO, Guy Cooper, said that welfare was not an issue in choosing between Taronga and Western Plains for the elephants.

IFAW, RSPCA Australia and the Humane Society International (HSI), appealed the decision made by the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, to allow the import of eight Asian elephants from Thailand to Taronga and Melbourne zoos ostensibly for a conservation breeding program.

The animal welfare organisations contend that if the zoos were serious about breeding they would be importing the elephants to their open range facilities at Western Plains and Werribee where there would be a lesser risk to the animals’ welfare and increased chances of breeding.  Under Australian law the zoos are not allowed to import Asian elephants simply for exhibition.

The hearing heard evidence from a wide range of elephant experts, veterinarians and zoo personnel on whether the zoos could meet the behavioural and biological needs of the animals and whether there was any conservation benefit to the import. The zoos do not plan to return any elephants they might breed to the wild.

During the hearing:
Dr Jacob Cheeran, veterinarian and member of the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group and the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group, gave evidence that the zoos plan will not have any effect on conserving the Asian elephant in the wild or in captivity.

Mr Alan Roocroft, a specialist consultant on the care for captive elephants, discussed the space at Taronga as being too small for four adult cows and mentioned that the space for visitors seemed to overpower the space for elephants.

Dr Joyce Poole, Research Director of the Amboseli Elephant Research project, gave evidence that without adequate space the two zoos cannot suitably manage, confine and care for the animals including meeting their biological and behavioural needs.

IFAW, RSPCA Australia and HSI are asking the Tribunal to refuse the zoos permission to import the elephants to Australia. A decision is expected from the Tribunal within the next month.

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