Animal Group Says Houston Zoo Mistreats Elephants

An animal advocacy group is once again calling the Houston Zoo one of the ten worst in North America for elephants — accusing the zoo of inhumane and disrepectful treatment. But the zoo says the claims are not based in truth. More from David Pitman.

This is the third year the Houston Zoo has made the list put out by the group In Defense of Animals, which also says the zoos in San Antonio, Toronto, Honolulu and the Bronx come up short in how they treat their elephants.

IDA campaign director Catherine Doyle says a source in the zoo industry, whom she declined to name, told the group that the Houston Zoo uses training methods based on punishment, with an instrument called a bullhook. 

"This is a device that is designed to inflict pain and discomfort on elephants.  And so powerful is the negative association with the bullhook that elephants who have not seen a bullhook in years will still respond if one is pulled out."

Doyle also has a problem with the zoo using the elephant named Methai for holiday photos with zoo visitors that cost $40 per sitting.

"I mean, this sends a very wrong message about elephants, and about having respect for these animals, especially for the Asian elephant which is a highly-endangered animal."

Zoo spokesman Brian Hill says if IDA representatives had been around during the photo sessions with Methai, they would've had a completely different impression.

"If anything, this was a very personal experience that motivated more people to care and learn more about elephant and elephant conservation after they'd had this incredible experience with Methai."

And Hill takes issue with IDA's claim that elephant handlers harm their three bulls and two cows with the instrument the IDA refers to as a bullhook.

"It is not used for punishment.  It is used in the same manner you might use the leash on your dog to tug in a particular direction to ask the animal to move in a particular direction."

The IDA says the zoo has been a hot spot for a herpes virus that has claimed the lives of more than a dozen elephants.  The zoo says it has worked with the Baylor College of Medicine to develop a test that can lead to quicker diagnosis and more effective treatment.  How well that test works could be determined this year.. one of the zoo's elephants is expected to deliver in April, the other is due in October.

Bio photo of David Pitman

David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...