USDA Orders Pittsburgh Zoo to Stop Stressing Elephants with Herding Dogs

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dogs herding elephants at Pittsburgh zoo

For three years, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has used siblings Major and Zeta — who are Australian Cattle Dogs — to herd its elephants. It’s the only zoo in the Northern Hemisphere that uses dogs in such a capacity.

The herding dogs are a safety measure for its elephant handlers, Tracy Gray told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last November.

“These relationships can be thought of in terms of traditional shepherding practices,” she said. “In this case, our primary elephant keeper represents the shepherd; the elephants represent the flock; and the Australian Cattle Dogs assist the shepherd.”

The dogs are apparently keeping the elephant handlers safe, but what about the safety of the dogs, and the stress they cause to the elephants?

“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,” stated People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in an October 2014 press release. “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.”

dogs herding elephants at Pittsburgh zoo

CBS Pittsburgh — which recorded the video PETA referred to — reported in May 2014 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.”

Using the dogs as elephant herders is also against Pennsylvania state laws, which prohibit dogs from pursuing wildlife.

In November, PETA filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). According to the Associated Press, officials with the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service investigated the Pittsburgh Zoo last month. A USDA inspection report dated Jan. 7 and released today by PETA notes that the officials asked an unidentified elephant manager for a demonstration of how the dogs herd the pachyderms.

The report said one of the dogs “showed aggressive behavior, growling and lunging at one elephant and entering its enclosure before being called back by the manager.” The manager told the officials the dogs had previously bitten the elephants doing the course of their work.

Based on these observations and facts, the USDA concluded that, effective immediately, the zoo must handle the elephants in a way that does not create undue stress — in other words, without dogs nipping at their feet.

dogs herding elephants at Pittsburgh zoo

Pittsburgh Zoo President and CEO Barbara Baker issued a statement today, defending the canine elephant herders.

“The dogs read the behavior of the animals and alert the keepers to any disruption in the heard, preventing potential safety concerns for the staff and elephants,” she stated. “This method of animal management, in the livestock field, is referred to as a low-stress method.”

Baker said the demonstration USDA officials observed was not an example of the dogs’ usual work. “Our elephant manager demonstrated a drill simulating the dog’s response to a keeper being in an extreme and unlikely situation. We showed how valuable the dogs can be should a keeper’s safety be in question.”

She said the zoo is now working with the USDA on a study “that examines a variety of facets regarding the welfare of elephants, including a unique examination of stress.”

Even 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 around in circles in your bathroom.)

dogs herding elephants at Pittsburgh zooOf 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 more than half of all accredited U.S. zoos, and use what is called protected contact.

Protected contact uses physical barriers to separate employees from elephants, and employs positive reinforcement methods.

The Pittsburgh Zoo currently uses both protected and unprotected contact.

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

Photos via CBS News