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San Diego Zoo to loan two Asian elephants to Los Angeles Zoo for new exhibit

October 29, 2010 |  9:30 am

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The San Diego Zoo is loaning two female Asian elephants to the Los Angeles Zoo for its new $42-million Elephants of Asia exhibit set to open in mid-December, officials at the two zoos announced Friday.

The two elephants, Jewel and Tina, have been at the San Diego Zoo for 14 months since being removed from a Texas location where the owner used them as circus performers. The move was ordered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the elephants' welfare.

In San Diego, the elephants, estimated to be in their mid-40s, have gained weight and had medical care. Jewel was in particularly bad shape when she arrived, officials said.

Jewel has gained 1,100 pounds, twice had complex dental surgery and received care for her abscessed feet, a common malady among aging elephants.

Both now are ready for a new home, said Jeff Andrews, elephant curator for the San Diego Zoo and the zoo's Safari Park. The loan is open-ended, with no certain date for the elephants to return to San Diego.

Several elephant keepers from San Diego, including Andrews, will work with the Los Angeles Zoo to ensure a continuity of care for the two -- including the "protected contact system" in which the animals are never struck and keepers keep a safe distance, usually behind a metal fence.

Elephants and their care have been a cause of political discord and litigation in Los Angeles, where the zoo, in effect, is run as a city department, with oversight by elected officials. In San Diego, the zoo is a private nonprofit organization that leases city-owned land in Balboa Park and has its own board of directors.

For security reasons, the date of the move is not being revealed. Jewel and Tina will join a male elephant named Billy at the Los Angeles Zoo.

The two zoos have cooperated in several projects in recent years, including efforts to save the California condor and Peninsular pronghorn from extinction. 

Once Jewel and Tina leave, the San Diego Zoo will have seven elephants at the zoo's Elephant Odyssey exhibit and 16 more at Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park).

The Elephants of Asia exhibit is meant to educate zoo visitors about the connection between elephants and the native cultures of Thailand, India, China and Cambodia, according to Los Angeles Zoo officials.

Because elephants are social creatures, and Tina and Jewel appear to have a bond, it was thought best to keep them together. Billy might also benefit from contact with other elephants, officials said.

"What we're doing is in the best interests of Tina and Jewel, and Billy," said Andrews.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Jewel, left, and Tina, Asian elephants at the San Diego Zoo. Credit: San Diego Zoo.

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