A petition filed by an animal rights group accusing U.S. zoos and circuses of harming elephants by confining them to cramped and inadequate enclosures has prompted the government to look into possible revisions to animal welfare laws.
In Defense of Animals filed a citizen's petition with the Department of Agriculture in early February claiming zoos and circuses were violating the federal Animal Welfare Act by holding elephants in unnatural pens, resulting in arthritis and chronic foot infections.
The petition seeks to compel the USDA to enforce the AWA provision requiring zoos and circuses to provide conditions consistent with elephants' health and well-being. It also asks the department to confiscate elephants suffering from "extreme cases of zoo-induced ailments."
In a letter to the group, Dr. Chester A. Gipson, deputy administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, wrote: "We acknowledge that these are important issues and that many parties have an interest in them."
The agency will publish the IDA petition in the Federal Register to garner public response. "APHIS will review all information in determining what, if any, regulatory actions address the best interest of the animals," Dr. Gipson wrote.
The government decision came amid a growing debate about the ethics of keeping elephants in captivity. In February, the Bronx Zoo announced it was phasing out its elephant exhibit. It was the latest institution to join a small number of zoos that have made similar decisions about a highly intelligent and social animal known to walk several miles daily in the wild.
Chicago is currently debating an ordinance banning elephants within the city unless each animal's habitat is at least 10 acres.
The IDA was quick to claim victory over the USDA review. "In seeking public comment on our petition, the USDA is acknowledging the gravity of concern over the poor conditions for elephants in our nation's zoos," said IDA president, Dr. Elliot Katz.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits some 210 institutions worldwide, called the petition an attempt to stir up controversy. "These extremists have targeted elephants as the first, but not the last, species they want to ban from zoos. In fact, they have plainly stated that their goal is to close all zoos," the AZA stated in response to the IDA petition.
"While animal rights extremists have launched an orchestrated public campaign using distorted information to serve their own agenda, AZA elephant experts have continued to use science, research, and their years of direct animal care expertise to continually improve elephant care and conservation, both in zoos and in the wild," said Kristin L. Vehrs, AZA interim executive director.