Pittsburgh Zoo Under Federal Investigation for Using Dogs to Herd Elephants

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FEB. 2, 2015 UPDATE: The USDA has ordered the Pittsburgh Zoo to stop causing undue stress to the elephants by using herding dogs.

dogs herd elephants at pittsburgh zooTo “advance and improve” the care it provides for its elephants, three years ago the Pittsburgh Zoo began using siblings Major and Zeta — who are Australian Cattle Dogs — to herd them. It’s the only zoo in the Northern Hemisphere that uses dogs in such a capacity.

“The primary reason the herding dogs are working with our team is for the safety of our staff,” zoo spokeswoman Tracy Gray told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “These relationships can be thought of in terms of traditional shepherding practices. In this case, our primary elephant keeper represents the shepherd; the elephants represent the flock; and the Australian Cattle Dogs assist the shepherd.”

In 2002, a handler at the Pittsburgh Zoo was killed when he fell and a mother elephant pushed her head on his chest. Thirteen years before that, an elephant kicked and broke the leg of another handler when he tried to give her medicine.

It’s all well and good that the staff is being kept safe, but what about the safety of the herding dogs?

“Video footage shows elephants displaying obvious signs of distress, including flapping their ears and trumpeting, as they’re chased and apparently nipped by dogs at the command of zoo staff,” states a press release from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “In addition to the obvious stress that this causes the elephants, the dogs are in danger of being accidentally stepped on and killed or purposely attacked and thrown in the air by the agitated elephants.”

CBS Pittsburgh — which recorded the video PETA is probably referring to — reported back in May that Major and Zeta were trained “to handle massive elephants. They charge and nip at the elephants’ feet and trunks. The elephants have such respect for the dogs that even if they hear a handler say the name Major or Zeta, they take notice.”

Brittany Peet, PETA’s deputy director of captive animal law enforcement, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s not just inhumane, to both the dogs and the elephants, it’s dangerous.”

It is also against Pennsylvania state laws, which prohibit dogs from pursuing wildlife.

PETA has filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), which is now investigating the zoo.

dog nips elephant at pittsburgh zooEven without Australian Cattle Dogs nipping at their feet, elephants in zoos are already under a lot of mental and physical stress. In the wild, elephants walk up to 30 miles a day. Being forced to live inside a small enclosure — alone or with just one or two other cellmates — makes for some very unhappy elephants. (Just imagine if you had to spend your life walking circles in your bathroom.)

Of course, the safest alternative is to release the elephants to a sanctuary — a humane action that, fortunately, is being taken by more and more zoos. But since that’s not likely to happen, a better way to increase the safety of zoo employees would be to follow the lead of many other zoos, and use what is called protected contact.

Used by more than half of all accredited U.S. zoos, protected contact uses physical barriers to separate employees from elephants, and employs positive reinforcement methods.

Grey told the Post-Gazette that the zoo uses both protected and unprotected contact.

“Both methods use vocal commands, praise and food rewards,” she said. “If an elephant does not want to work with the keeper, the keeper leaves the area. We never punish our elephants for not cooperating.”

A spokeswoman for the USDA told the Post-Gazette the department is looking into the matter and will determine whether the zoo is complying with animal welfare act regulations

Photos via CBS News