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Zoo puts itself on the line for aging elephant

In  a move that could jeopardize its accreditation, the San Francisco Zoo has sent its lone Asian elephant to a sanctuary for abandoned and abused performing animals.
Tinkerbelle, a 38-year-old Asian elephant, is seen at the San Francisco Zoo before she was moved to a sanctuary on Sunday.Eric Risberg / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The San Francisco Zoo has sent its lone Asian elephant to a sanctuary for abandoned and abused performing animals, a move that could jeopardize the zoo’s accreditation.

For months, animal rights groups have pressured the zoo to relocate the 38-year-old Tinkerbelle to a 2,300-acre preserve in San Andreas. In June, San Francisco’s board of supervisors passed a resolution, urging zookeepers to send Tinkerbelle to the Calaveras County refuge in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The refuge is part of the larger Performing Animal Welfare Society founded by a Hollywood animal trainer. Though animal activists hailed Sunday’s transfer, it upset the influential American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which prefers that animals are sent to accredited facilities.

The group’s executive director addressed the matter in a letter to the zoo, insisting that moving Tinkerbelle to an unaccredited location posed “serious ethical and accreditation concerns.”

Thinking of Tinkerbelle
“In this case, we ... acted in the best interest of Tinkerbelle. We hope it won’t jeopardize our accreditation,” zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan said.

The zoo’s remaining African elephant, 38-year-old Lulu, will join Tinkerbelle in late December. The zoo eventually plans to permanently close its elephant exhibit.

If it loses accreditation, the San Francisco Zoo could be barred from sending animals to or receiving them from other accredited zoos across the nation. Officials expect to hear whether accreditation is renewed in March.

Detroit Zoo weighs similar issue
Officials at the Detroit Zoo are facing a similar dispute.

The zoo wants to send two aging elephants, 51-year-old Winky and 46-year-old Wanda, to a sanctuary in San Antonio, where they would have a greater range and warmer climate. But the American Zoo and Aquarium Association said they should go to the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium. The elephants have been together for many years.

Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan says he would defy the zoo association if Detroit owned both of the animals, but Wanda is on loan from the San Antonio Zoo, which supports the zoo association’s recommendation. Last Tuesday, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wrote to San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza, asking him to use his influence with zoo officials there to help get the elephants to the Texas sanctuary.