Toledo Zoo takes in elephant confiscated from Indiana circus

At between 5,500 and 5,600 pounds, Twiggy is considered thin. She is in quarantine at the Toledo Zoo before she can meet the zoo's two elephants, Louie and Renee.
At between 5,500 and 5,600 pounds, Twiggy is considered thin. She is in quarantine at the Toledo Zoo before she can meet the zoo's two elephants, Louie and Renee.

It didn't take long for the Toledo Zoo's newest addition to make herself at home.

Twiggy, a 25-year-old African elephant, arrived at the zoo late Thursday after being confiscated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from a private circus owner near Peru, Ind.

Now, she's getting comfortable in the just-completed "bachelor pad" that the zoo created for 6-year-old Louie.

"Louie's facility has a stall with a concrete floor to bathe him and a huge stall with a sand floor," said Anne Baker, the zoo's executive director. "She seems to really like the sand floor. Within minutes of coming off the truck she was kicking up the dust, taking a sand bath."

Twiggy is being quarantined in the bull facility, a prelude to her being introduced to the zoo's two other resident elephants, Louie and his mother, 29-year-old Renee.

Ms. Baker could not say how long it would be before the public will get to meet Twiggy, who at 5,500 to 5,600 pounds is "thin." The new elephant also has pitted feet, indicating she's been subjected to rough surfaces and didn't receive proper foot care, Ms. Baker said.

"I think what may be for me the most alarming is she has some pretty significant stereotypic behaviors," said Ms. Baker, whose background is in animal behavior. "She does a lot of head swinging, back and forth in a very repetitive manner. She also has a habit of lifting up her one leg very, very high just repeatedly."

Head-swinging often indicates an animal has not had appropriate stimulation, she explained, and has been kept by itself with little to do.

"Elephants are highly sociable," Ms. Baker said. "They like being around other animals."

USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service routinely visits and inspects zoos, circuses, and other facilities with animals protected by the Animal Welfare Act. He said it's "highly unusual" to confiscate a large animal. Inspectors must determine that an animal is suffering, he said.

"With the elephant, it was health-related. She just wasn't doing well," Mr. Sacks said. "She had been losing weight. There were some skin issues."

Ms. Baker said the USDA approached the zoo about two weeks ago about the possibility of taking Twiggy. Most of the Toledo Zoo's large animals come from other zoos rather than from rescue situations, she said.

"We very quickly chatted among our staff ... and we felt it was not only something we could do, but something we should do," Ms. Baker said.

Twiggy's transfer to Toledo has not come without criticism.

Julius von Uhl, the elephant's previous owner, said he rescued Twiggy 15 years ago and trained her to perform in his traveling circus.

He said USDA inspectors were at his home three times last year and never informed him of any problems with his elephant, who lived in his barn.

Mr. von Uhl claimed his elephant was stolen from him just as he had made plans to retire and sell Twiggy to the Pittsburgh Zoo.

Tracy Gray, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh Zoo, confirmed that zoo officials had spoken with Mr. von Uhl about the elephant but said no agreement was in place.

"We were just in discussions with him, and we had nothing concrete," she said.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also chimed in on the issue, saying the USDA had transferred Twiggy "from one bad situation to another" by moving her to the Toledo Zoo. PETA accused the zoo of using "an outdated, circus-style form of elephant management" - a claim Ms. Baker disputed.

"Do we use a guide? Yes, we do, but do we use it inappropriately? No," Ms. Baker said, adding that PETA does not want to see elephants in zoos nor does it want zoos to exist at all.

"We certainly expected to hear this from PETA, because this is what they say," she said.

"They will say this about every zoo in the country. That's their mantra. Our mantra is, we want to do the very best possible for the animals, and I think we do that."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

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