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An animal protection group In Defense of Animals is protesting the Birmingham Zoo's treatment of an Asian elephant named Mona.
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An animal protection group In Defense of Animals is protesting the Birmingham Zoo's treatment of an Asian elephant named Mona.

Group: Birmingham Zoo elephant mistreated

By Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

BIRMINGHAM — An animal protection group is protesting the treatment of an aged Asian elephant named Mona, which it claims is the most mistreated zoo elephant this side of Alaska.

The California-based In Defense of Animals placed the Birmingham Zoo atop its list of the 10 worst U.S. zoos for elephants because the 7,900-pound Mona lives alone in an indoor/outdoor enclosure roughly the size of two basketball courts.

Zoo officials say Mona is well cared for, and they dismiss the group as extremists who've never even visited her.

Accreditation standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums normally require that zoos have at least two elephants to keep each other company, but the group granted an exception for Birmingham's zoo because of Mona's advanced age, believed to be near 60.

"She's the oldest Asian elephant in an accredited zoo in North America," said association spokesman Steve Feldman. "We have no concerns about this elephant."

Catherine Doyle, director of the elephant campaign for In Defense of Animals, said elephants are highly social animals that live in herds in the wild, and keeping one in a pen by itself "is cruel and unusual punishment."

"(Zoos) are incapable of providing the space and natural conditions that elephants need," Doyle said in an interview Friday. "If they can't they shouldn't keep elephants."

Birmingham was tied atop the group's bad list with the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, where an elephant named Maggie lives alone and spends much of her time indoors because of the cold weather.

According to the zoo's Web site, Maggie was brought there in 1983 as a companion for Annabelle, an Asian elephant that died in 1997.

Officials at the Birmingham Zoo defend their treatment of Mona. Chief executive Bill Foster said the elephant is very healthy and seems happy.

"She's an old girl who commands the care she wants and gets it," said Foster, a wildlife veterinarian.

Doyle said Mona couldn't have anything approaching a normal life for an elephant, however.

"She can't be exhibiting natural behaviors because she is alone," said Doyle.

The dispute is part of a larger debate between animal advocates and zoos and circuses over the treatment of animals and whether such animals should be held at all.

Birmingham used to have a second elephant named Suzy, but she died two years ago. Mona has been without elephant companionship since then, but keepers say she is thriving on her own and seems to have adopted them as her herd.

Zoological manager Marie Krchak has worked with Mona for nearly two decades, and she said she has seen no signs of health problems aside from worn-down teeth and a touch of arthritis, "just the normal things that go about with being 60 years old."

"She's happy here," said Krchak. Mona, she said, is actually doing better by herself since the other elephant died. "She seemed to become a lot calmer because Suzy was the dominant elephant," said Krchak.

The zoo last year refused a request by an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee that sought custody of Mona to put her into "retirement."

Feldman, the spokesman for the zoological association, said the group will review Mona's case again in March to determine whether to continue its approval of her solitary life.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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