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Published: Wednesday, 1/13/2010

Elephants get space, zoo gets criticism

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Louie the Elephant is days away from moving into his new, expansive digs at the Toledo Zoo with his mother, Renee, as contractors finish the first phase of a $14 million expansion of the Toledo Zoo's elephant display.

But not everyone looks upon this pachyderm project with glee.

In Defense of Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal rights group, yesterday included the Toledo Zoo on its annual list of the 10 worst zoos for elephants for the first time. It ranked it No. 9.

In Defense of Animals claimed Louie, who turns 7 in April, is being separated from his 30-year-old Mom too soon. Bull elephants in the wild typically remain with their herds until age 14. The group said that would be better, though acknowledging that some zoos have separated male elephants from their mothers at age 1.

None of that's an issue at the Toledo Zoo, the zoo's deputy director, Ron Fricke, said.

He said the zoo is keeping Louie and Mom together indefinitely, unless Louie would become aggressive.

"They will always have contact with each other," he said.

The zoo eventually hopes to mate Louie with female elephants. It will keep Louie away from his mother during mating season to prevent inbreeding, he said.

Catherine Doyle of In Defense of Animals claimed it will be an impossible situation to monitor, and that the zoo knows it will have to separate the two.

She said the zoo landed itself on the list largely because of its decision to pursue a captive-breeding elephant program at a time when homes can't be found for other males.

"It comes down to irresponsibility for breeding," Ms. Doyle said.

Louie is two years away from reaching his sexual maturity.

Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director, was not available for comment yesterday. But she said in an earlier interview the zoo likes Louie too much to find him another home. Hence its decision to expand its elephant exhibit, largely with revenue generated by the levy Lucas County voters approved in 2006. About $2.5 million will come from private donations. Ninety companies and nearly 180 employees are involved with it.

The concrete-and-steel structure, which costs $4.4 million, stands 40 feet tall. That's because Louie, when full grown, should be able to reach 30 feet high when he stands on his hind legs.



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