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Updated Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 08:18 AM

Portland zoo vows elephant calf will stay put — even if they have to buy her

By Michael J. Berens
Seattle Times staff reporter

The future ownership of a baby elephant born at Portland's zoo last week remains under negotiation as top zoo officials promised Tuesday to keep the calf even if they have to buy her from a private traveling show.

At a Tuesday news conference, Oregon Zoo Director Kim Smith confirmed a Seattle Times report that the newborn calf is owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, of Perris, Calif., which rents out pachyderms to the entertainment industry, stages circuslike events and offers elephant rides at $500 an hour.

"This calf is very important to us," Smith said. "She was never going to leave the zoo."

The private company loaned the zoo a male elephant, Tusko, for breeding. In return, Have Trunk Will Travel retained ownership of the second, fourth or sixth calves sired by Tusko, according to the contract obtained by The Times.

Last Friday, an Oregon Zoo Asian elephant, Rose-Tu, gave birth to her second calf sired by Tusko.

"I can assure you, there is no need for any petitions to keep Rose-Tu's baby with her family," Smith said. "This has been the intent all along, and our contract is representative of standard agreements within the zoo industry."

If the zoo ends up needing to purchase the unnamed female calf from Have Trunk Will Travel, Smith promised "public" dollars would not be used.

Have Trunk Will Travel co-owner Kari Johnson told The Times on Monday she had not decided whether the company would seek to move the elephant into their shows.

Johnson also said her company is negotiating with the zoo over the calf's future. She couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Oregon Zoo may have to pay a high price for her. The Houston Zoo agreed to pay $500,000 to Have Trunk Will Travel for a 27-year-old female elephant, with a 4-year-old male elephant included in the deal, according to a contract between the two parties.

The contract was provided to The Times by Catherine Doyle, director of science and research for Performing Animal Welfare Society, a nonprofit group that runs an elephant sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif.

Houston zoo officials couldn't be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Breeding and acquiring more elephants is the primary mission for dozens of zoos.

The Times reported this week in a two-part series, "Glamour Beasts," that elephants are dying out in America's accredited zoos. For every elephant born, on average two others die, a Times analysis has found.

Just 288 elephants are left inside 78 accredited U.S. zoos. Zoos have depended on elephants as crowd pleasers and revenue generators.

The exchange of elephants between zoos and Have Trunk Will Travel is not unusual.

The Los Angeles Zoo has twice turned over its elephants to the company, according to breeding records maintained by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an industry trade group.

The Los Angeles Zoo handed over Becky, an Asian female, in 1993. The company kept her for two years, then transferred her to African Lion Safari, a Canadian Zoo, where she became pregnant.

Becky came back to Have Trunk Will Travel and delivered a male calf in 1998. He died four years later from "disease" and "twisted intestines," according to AZA records.

Also in 1993, the Los Angeles Zoo turned over a 9-year-old Asian female to the traveling show. The elephant was later transferred to a New York zoo, brought back to California to Have Trunk Will Travel, then passed along to the Denver Zoo in June 2001, and then returned once again to California.

She gave birth in 2006. Her calf, JP, died at age 4 from a herpes virus that attacks elephants.

Elephants managed through the Oregon Zoo also have a history of numerous transfers and relocations, mostly in the 1960s through the 1990s, when some of its elephants ended up in circuses.

Stoney, an Asian male born at the Oregon Zoo, was part of a show at a Las Vegas casino and suffered a fatal leg injury during a performance in 1995.

Cora, an Asian female, born at the zoo in 1965, is today with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

It is not uncommon for accredited zoos to exchange elephants with circuses, industry breeding records show.

The Oregon Zoo, founded in 1887, has been home to a total of 49 elephants over its history. Eight elephants are part of the collection today, including the much-celebrated Packy, who turned 50 this year — the first elephant born in an American zoo.

The zoo has achieved a total of 28 births, marking it as one of the most prolific elephant-breeding programs in the nation.

Michael J. Berens: mberens@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2288.


MICHAEL DURHAM / AP
A newborn female Asian elephant calf is seen Friday in the elephant maternity ward with her mother, Rose-Tu, at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.




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