By MIKE FAHER
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.
“We will be very careful in evaluating these animals,” Baker said.
As for confinement in small pens, Baker said “there couldn’t be anything further from the truth.” She said Jackson spends all but about one hour each day outdoors.
“He’s doing quite well,” Baker said. “We bring him in to feed him and make sure he’s OK.”
Baker acknowledged the zoo’s use of bull hooks, but she said animal-rights organizations misrepresent that tool’s purpose.
“It’s simply an extension of the arm,” she said. “It just provides a little bit of extra safety space when you’re working with the animal.”
The activist groups likely will not buy those arguments.
They argue that Philadelphia Zoo leaders do not have a coherent plan for the elephants, and they’re lobbying for the animals to instead be relocated to one of two “accredited natural habitat elephant sanctuaries” in California and Tennessee.
But Baker said zoo administrators continue to make plans to move the elephants to Somerset County.
“Providing the animals with a safe, wonderful environment to live in really is our first priority,” she said.