Away from the crowd at the Oregon Zoo's Asian Elephant exhibit, two trainers give the two-ton creatures a workout in a barn.
Using large pieces of carrot as incentive, the trainers coax the elephants to kneel, bow and even lie down on command. The handlers then can examine the eyes, trunks, feet and mouths of Chendra, Rose-Tu and Sung-Sarin for sickness or disease.
These female elephants, along with their three male counterparts, are some of the zoo's biggest stars. Since the birth of a bull named Packy in 1962—the first captive elephant birth in the Western Hemisphere in over 40 years—the zoo has used the elephants extensively in its promotions.
According to an animal rights nonprofit, the zoo needs to return the favor by doing more than medical checkups.
The local chapter of California-based In Defense of Animals wants Metro, which oversees the zoo, to create a permanent off-site natural habitat of at least 50 acres. IDA member Matt Rossell envisions a setting where the elephants would be undisturbed by humans but viewable by webcam. That spot would give the creatures large areas to roam and "freedom of choice in daily activities and social interactions," Rossell says.
He says the zoo's "cramped and unnatural conditions" keep elephants from walking as much as in the wild. The result, Rossell says, is foot disease in five of the six elephants, including "repeated abscesses, lesions, ulcers, fissures and fractured toes."
A Metro subcommittee has recommended doubling the size of the elephants' 63,000-square-foot outdoor area at a cost of $13.5 million, with plans to explore options in the longer term for a large off-site facility.
But Rossell would like to see the off-site facility on the table now. He says simply enlarging the space cannot solve the lack of room that's creating health problems.
Rossell pointed to the 10 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos that've closed their elephant exhibits due to lack of adequate space, most recently in 2006 in Philadelphia. He also cites several others that have sent elephants to large sanctuaries in Tennessee and California.
"Why would we spend any money on making a change where the end result is an exhibit that is horribly outdated?" Rossell says.
Mike Keele, the zoo's deputy director, says there's not enough data to conclude that the elephants wouldn't have the same foot problems in the wild.
But Keele says there is enough data to report that elephant foot problems have dropped dramatically since the area's floors went from concrete to a rubber mix.
Keele says although the elephants may not walk the 10 or more miles they'd walk each day in the wild, they do get as much exercise as they need, and are "absolutely" happy. Any foot problem is quickly noted and reported to a vet, he says, and their situations are closely monitored.
Rossell says IDA has no specific agenda to shut down zoos. Keele is skeptical.
"It's about driving an agenda," he says "It's about closing zoos down, one species at a time."
In Defense of Animals has posted zoo medical records on its website, idausa.org.
The USDA fined the Oregon Zoo $10,000 in 2000 for elephant abuse due to the zoo's use of the bullhook, a bronze or steel hook attached to a long handle that's used to control the animals.