"Sometimes you fall into traps," says Woodland Park Zoo animal curator Bruce Bohmke, musing on the uproar over a recent beating administered to Seattle's heartthrob, the elephant tyke Hansa. "Habits are hard to break." Bohmke isn't talking about Hansa's dogged habit of swallowing sand that could plug her innards. He means the reflexive way his staff has reacted to the dirt munching that precipitated the beating and the latest activist attack on the zoo's elephant care. He could also be talking about Woodland Park's and other zoos' dogged determination to breed more Baby Hansas and keep their little elephant barns full, whatever happens to her species at large.
Keepers have been trying to get the dirt out of Hansa's mouth for more than a year, almost since she first began trundling around outdoors. It's a Keystone Cops spectacle: Each time a keeper would turn his head, she'd dart for a bare patch of ground, he'd trudge after her calling "Hansa, no!" and jam the smooth haft of his bullhook between her mouth and trunk to tug her away from the delectable soil. That seemed to work when Hansa was the size of a sow. At 1,600 pounds, she now weighs as much as a bull and can body slam a strong man into pancakedom. On June 22, when the newest keeper in the pen tried to block her mouth, she head-butted him. The first rule of traditional elephant keeping—from ancient India to modern Seattle—is to maintain dominance: When an animal challenges you, use whatever force it takes to get her back in line. According to an internal incident report, the keeper acted by the book and—"reprimanded"—thumped her three times with the bullhook's handle—no physical injury for an elephant, but psychology's another matter.
It was only a matter of time before a controversy broke. Bohmke says Hansa had challenged the keepers and received similar "discipline" before. This time, however, onlookers saw her run off bellowing and a zoo insider forwarded the memo to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed a federal animal-welfare complaint and howled to the media.
Last year, PETA filed a similar complaint over a heavier beating that Hansa's mother, Chai, received when she swung at a keeper at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., soon after arriving there for stud service in spring of 1999. Dickerson Park paid a $5,000 civil penalty, $3,000 of it for a consultant's help in developing a more hands-off "protected contact" program of elephant care. Such a settlement is typical in animal-welfare cases and wouldn't be surprising here.
And in all the claims and counterclaims to come over Hansa, one question will likely be lost—a question that sounds trivial but is actually trenchant: Why does she keep diving for the dirt, when veterinarians fear it might fatally jam her young gut?
Elephants of all ages eat some soil, probably to get minerals, and zoo critics such as Elephant Sanctuary operator Carol Buckley argue that heavy gulping like Hansa's indicates a deficient diet. Woodland Park officials vehemently, and plausibly, dispute that; whatever their psychological shortcomings, modern zoos know their nutrition. Curator Bohmke ruefully suggests a more likely explanation: Hansa may swallow sand because the keepers encourage her to—by trying to stop her. "When she eats dirt, keepers give her a lot of attention, which she may seek more of. It may be self-reinforcing."
If so, the vicious cycle is due to end by year's end. After a decade of pondering and years of promising, Woodland Park finally plans to switch from traditional "free contact" management to the new and safer regime known as "protected contact." Under protected contact, bars or other barriers always separate man and beast. Neither can strike the other, and keepers cannot coerce obedience; they must induce cooperation with treats, praise, or other rewards. Hansa will be free to munch all the dirt she wants, but she won't be able to get the same rise by doing so. Already she and Bamboo, Seattle's oldest elephant, are getting "target trained" in the new system.
Protected contact isn't the only big change that Hansa's birth has precipitated in the elephant house. Now that the zoo has managed to breed Chai the old- fashioned way (after years of failed attempts at artificial insemination), it is hurrying to send Sri, its other eligible female Asian elephant, off for breeding—again to Missouri, this time to the St. Louis Zoo. But when Sri left this week on an ostensible "loan," she likely left for good. Zookeepers hope to keep the barn full with new babies from Chai and, eventually, Hansa, and let Sri start a new life in St. Louis. That should make their job here easier; clever, nervous Sri, low girl in the elephant-house pecking order, has taken least readily to Hansa's bumptious intrusion and the extra confinement that the baby brought the other elephants.
Artificial insemination works better on second-time moms than new ones, so Chai may be spared the ordeal of another breeding loan. And protected contact will spare Hansa and the keepers any more sandlot confrontations. Though peace may prevail in the elephant yard, a troublesome moral question will still hang over it: All the adorable little Hansas to come will be bred for lives in captivity. For all the zoos' noble declarations about becoming "arks" and breeding elephants to save the endangered species, the products of their sophisticated midwifery will never, ever be released to the wild; raised in pens, they'd have no idea how to survive there, anyway. But whatever happens to wild elephants and their embattled habitats, we'll have at least another generation or two of captive ones to delight in.
Eric Scigliano will read from his new book, Love, War, and Circuses: The Age Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans (Houghton Mifflin 2002), at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E. at 7 p.m. Wed., July 24.