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July 7, 2009

Pachyderm protest: Groups oppose breeding plan at Fairhope-area facility

FAIRHOPE — A trio of animal-rights groups is railing against the pending move of two elephants to Pittsburgh Zoo’s conservation center in Somerset County.

The organizations – including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – argue that the two pachyderms from Philadelphia’s zoo are too old for breeding and would be confined to “small pens” at the Fairhope-area facility.

But the zoo’s top administrator begs to differ, saying the activists’ assertions are misleading and, in some cases, wholly inaccurate.

“None of these groups has ever visited our site,” said Barbara Baker, the zoo’s president and chief executive officer.

Pittsburgh Zoo announced the creation of the 724-acre International Conservation Center in January 2006. The facility welcomed its first tenant – bull elephant Jackson – in December.

Zoo administrators have said for some time that they planned to move two female elephants, Kallie and Bette, from the Philadelphia Zoo to the Somerset County center.

But that initiative now is attracting controversy.

On Tuesday, three organizations – PETA, Born Free USA and In Defense of Animals – said they are “joining forces to oppose the pending move.”

Among their concerns:

• The groups decry what they call “cruel, circus-style elephant training” involving “physical punishment delivered with the bull hook.” Many zoos no longer use such tools, the activists say.

• “Confinement to small pens with no free access” to the property, preventing the animals from “engaging in natural physical and social elephant behavior.” The zoo has not erected elephant-proof fencing, the groups say.

• “Grave risks” in breeding older elephants such as Kallie and Bette, both of which are in their late 20s.

However, Baker argues that the groups are pursuing a vendetta against all zoos.

She said the two female elephants will be closely examined before any breeding activity.

Age does not preclude pregnancy, Baker said, noting that two of the Pittsburgh Zoo’s elephants – both in their late 20s – gave birth last year.

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