Protesters address the baby elephant in the room


Several people gathered outside the Pittsburgh Zoo Saturday morning in protest of the zoo's controversial history of animal welfare. (Photo courtesy of Remy Samuels)

By Amanda Finney and Remy Samuels | For The Pitt News

“Cruelty is Not Entertainment,” was the protesters’ creed.

It was printed, along with the slogan “Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium Enslaves and Kills,” on the signs the protesters held as they stood outside the front entrance of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

Protesters gathered outside of the Pittsburgh Zoo Saturday morning to protest the zoo’s past animal welfare offenses — specifically the recent death of a baby elephant, which protesters argue was avoidable.

Tiffany Parker, 35, from Lawrenceville, is an animal welfare advocate who attended the protest. She previously traveled to Southeast Asia to volunteer at elephant sanctuaries.  Parker argues that the zoo removed the baby elephant from the mom too early, causing her declining health.

“The mother had a calf previous to this baby and she also rejected this one and it died shortly after birth. And the zoo knew this and they bred her anyways,” Parker said. “And so they knew the risks.”

In a press conference Aug. 30, Barbara Baker, CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo, said the elephant’s low birth weight and teething challenges were to blame for her death. Baker paused periodically as she tearfully informed the audience of the situation.

“You know, she was a feisty calf, and she had a lot of fight, so we searched high and low to try and figure out why she’s not gaining weight,” Baker said. “She should be gaining weight.”

While the recent passing served to catalyze protester frustration, Leila Sleiman of Northside, leader of the animal welfare group Justice for Animals, emphasized that protesters were discontent with the Pittsburgh Zoo’s actions as a whole.

“Some zoos have better standards, and the Pittsburgh Zoo just absolutely does not. It’s not a secret. And that’s on them,” Sleiman said.

Sleiman presented an extensive list of grievances, including the zoo’s loss of their Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation in 2015 for refusing to comply with new safety standards that separate keepers and elephants. Past controversies she cited also include the death of a toddler who fell into an exhibit and was killed by wild dogs in 2012.

Fellow protester and Pitt senior Rosemary Geraghty, a political science and communications double major, also argued that the Pittsburgh Zoo’s treatment of its animals is inadequate. Geraghty said she believes zoo-goers often overlook the problems animals face in zoos and said “injustices and cruelty” are occurring.

“I think that people should be making informed choices about the types of entertainment they go to consume,” Geraghty said.

For those seeking change, both Geraghty and Sleiman suggested taking action by writing to the zoo and demanding answers from their representatives, especially Baker. Parker argued that people have a duty to advocate for those who have no voice.

“I would never take my kids to the zoo,” Parker said. “I would rather have them see these animals in their natural habitats than standing on concrete with a fence around them for their whole lives.”

Parker said zoos tend to focus more on business, putting care of the animals last. Rather than helping animals, Parker said she believes profit is the zoo’s top priority.

“The zoo should put more time and money into the animals they already have and make it more of a sanctuary style than a ‘come one, come all’ circus-type area,” Parker said.

While many were protesting the recent animal deaths at the Pittsburgh Zoo, other attendees were against the concept of captivity in general. Sleiman said animals are restricted, even enslaved, in zoos and that zoos prevent animals from leading natural lives in their appropriate habitats.

“Animals in captivity are going out of fashion,” Sleiman said. “There are sanctuaries and rehab facilities where they can live out their days without being gawked at by field trips.”

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