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L.A. Zoo was fined following 2006 deaths of Asian elephant Gita and chimpanzee Judeo

July 21, 2009 |  8:02 pm

Gita The Los Angeles Zoo paid a $3,281 fine as a result of a USDA investigation into the 2006 deaths of Gita, a 48-year-old Asian elephant, and a chimpanzee named Judeo.

Although the fine was paid in January 2008, it wasn't made public until the group In Defense of Animals released the details in a statement Monday.  But according to In Defense of Animals, the relatively small fine is nothing more than "a slap on the wrist" to the zoo and shows that the lives of elephants and other endangered species hold little value to the government agency that issued it.

In Defense of Animals and other advocacy groups argue that Gita's death was the result of negligence on the zoo's part.  A night-shift keeper reportedly noticed she was in distress the evening before she died, but didn't share the information with veterinary staff.  When she was discovered by two other keepers the following morning, it was too late to save her, despite heroic veterinary efforts.  She died a few hours after the two keepers found her in the morning.  (The night keeper later resigned.)

Judeo, the zoo's alpha male chimpanzee, died after being bitten by a wild rattlesnake that had entered his enclosure. "We knew something was in there, but we didn't know what,''  Jennifer Gonsman, a keeper who witnessed the incident, told the Daily News after the chimp succumbed to the snake's venom.  "He stuck his hand in the bush and pulled it out quickly and that's when he got bit."

According to L.A. Zoo spokesman Jason Jacobs, the zoo agreed to pay the 2008 fine but had not admitted to violations specified by the USDA in its report.  "We wanted to move ahead, and the best way to do that was by settling," he told our colleague Carla Hall.  From Hall's story:

Jacobs made available on Monday the zoo's 2008 settlement agreement with the USDA, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act. The agreement says the zoo "failed to assure an elephant received veterinary care in adequate time. Elephant Gita was found in an awkward position around 9 p.m., and veterinarians were not alerted to Gita's condition until around 5 a.m. the next day."

It also said the zoo did not provide veterinary care "in a timely matter" to [Judeo] ... The chimp exhibit has been praised for its extensive landscaping. But in this case, the USDA cited the zoo for "failure to restrict other animals from entering the non-human primate enclosures."

Jacobs insisted the zoo had taken excellent care of both Gita and Judeo, calling Judeo's death a "freak accident" and pointing to Gita's care after she underwent foot surgery.  But to those who oppose keeping elephants in zoos, the foot surgery itself is a tricky subject -- some argue that the nature of confinement for the animals, which roam long distances in the wild, causes them to develop foot trouble. 

L.A. Zoo director John Lewis himself acknowledged that, in the past, Gita and other zoo elephants were kept in barns with concrete floors at night.  Although the zoo hasn't kept elephants in such conditions in years, "we're paying the price for how they were treated in their earlier lives -- no exercise, being kept on concrete," he said last year, when a heated debate was raging over the zoo's Pachyderm Forest exhibit.

RELATED POSTS:
Sunita, 60, euthanized at Wild Animal Park
City Council votes to keep Billy the elephant at the L.A. Zoo
Activists rally for the L.A. Zoo's Pachyderm Forest; Bob Barker donates to the opposition

OTHER L.A. TIMES STORIES:
Carla Hall's story on the zoo's fine over Gita's and Judeo's deaths

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A keeper tends to Gita following her foot surgery.  Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

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