Pittsburgh Zoo losing sea turtle program, playground money in dispute over elephant policy

Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is losing its sea turtle program and money for a playground after dropping accreditation with a major organization over its elephant contact policy.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports (http://bit.ly/1LxLx8r) the zoo must reapply to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to continue participating in programs that aid threatened and endangered species. Lacking the accreditation, it no longer qualifies to participate in the Sea Turtle Second Chance program, which supports hatchlings of endangered loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles. The program has operated at the zoo since 2009.

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It also had a $5,000 grant for a children's nature playground revoked.

The zoo decided to drop accreditation with the AZA last week over a policy that limits unrestricted access between handlers and elephants to times of transport, research, calf management and medical treatment.

Zoo President and CEO Dr. Barbara Baker said Monday the elephant contact policy is "illogical" and more dangerous for keepers. The zoo's board of directors unanimously approved the decision at a meeting on Aug. 13.

"We tried to work with the AZA for over a year, but we believe strongly that zoo directors must have final decision-making power for the animals under their care, and are best equipped to make decisions about those animals," Dr. Baker said. "I care about the AZA accreditation, but I care more about my animals and staff."

The Pittsburgh Zoo has continued to use a hands-on elephant management technique known as "free contact." The technique puts keepers side-by-side with elephants and uses social dominance and threats of physical punishment to control the animals.

"I think absolutely the Pittsburgh Zoo is doing some serious damage to its reputation with its decision not to comply with the AZA policy on protected contact with its elephants," said Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the U.S. "Pittsburgh is continuing to use an outdated, circus-style form of training and management that relies on keeper dominance and elephant fear of punishment. There's a much more humane way to go."

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com