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A national animal rights group is urging the Buffalo Zoo to follow the lead of the Detroit and San Francisco zoos by closing its Asian elephant exhibit and giving the animals to a sanctuary.

In a letter to Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked that the zoo "put the welfare of its elephants above all else by following this progressive trend."

Noting that Detroit officials based their decision in part on "the severity of the winters," PETA said: "As Buffalo's climate is similar to Detroit's, the Buffalo Zoo's elephants are living in conditions that the caring staff at the Detroit Zoo has determined to be cruel." PETA issued the same plea to Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse.

Fernandes could not be reached to comment. But Daryl Hoffman, Buffalo's chief elephant keeper and president of the national Elephant Managers Association, scoffed at the idea that the huge critters are weather wimps.

"They have such body mass they can handle it," he said.

Wild Asian elephants often venture into cold, mountainous areas without adverse consequences, and the zoo's three females seem to enjoy frolicking outside even in snowy, icy conditions, Hoffman said. "It never seems to make them sick.

"They are very active in cold weather. They can come and go from the Elephant House as they please, and they go out even on the coldest days. We've never encountered problems."

Even Big Frank, a male pachyderm who inhabited the zoo in the early 1900s, lived to a ripe old age without the benefit of the heated Elephant House, which was built in the 1930s, Hoffman said.

The PETA letter, signed by elephant specialist Nicole Meyer, also alleged -- erroneously -- that the zoo is violating American Zoo and Aquarium Association standards by housing two female elephants instead of three or more.

The zoo has three females -- Buki, Surapa and Jothi -- and since 1973 has never had fewer than three, said spokeswoman Lisa Herman.

In May, the Detroit Zoo became the nation's first major animal facility to give away elephants solely on ethical grounds by sending its two aging, ailing females to the 2,800-acre Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Though the Detroit facility is a recognized leader in animal care, "much more is needed to be able to meet all the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, especially in a cold climate," said zoo Director Ron Kagan.

Five U.S. zoos have closed elephant exhibits in recent years amid public pressure after animal deaths or alleged mistreatment. The San Francisco Zoo decided in early May to close its pachyderm exhibit after the deaths of two of its four Asian elephants.

It is the second time in two years that PETA has criticized Buffalo's elephant-management program. In October 2002, the organization asked Fernandes to discontinue the custom of chaining the animals at night.

Fernandes and Hoffman said that chaining does not harm -- and may even benefit -- the huge beasts and that they saw no reason to change the routine.


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