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S.O.S. for elephants

Ringling pachyderms to retire to Florida, surviving Philadelphia Zoo elephants should be so lucky

Kallie (left) and Bette at their home in Fairhope, Pa., before Kallie was sent to live in Cleveland’s zoo.
Kallie (left) and Bette at their home in Fairhope, Pa., before Kallie was sent to live in Cleveland’s zoo.Read more

THINGS ARE LOOKING up for circus elephants, not quite so much for former Philadelphia Zoo elephants.

Of the four living in the Quaker City when the zoo reluctantly decided to send them away in 2006, two are dead and the other two, friends for decades, have been torn apart.

What brings Philly's former elephants into the center ring, so to speak, was the recent decision by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to phase out circus elephants, in a slow-motion retirement, to a Florida sanctuary by 2018.

Feld Entertainment (which owns the circus) CEO Kenneth Feld acknowledged this follows "shifting consumer preferences," which means more people understand that a traveling circus - any circus, really - offers a life of misery, and sometimes pain, to the pachyderms.

Marianne Bessey, who heads Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants, called the Feld decision "fantastic," but said "we will still continue to protest until every animal is gone from the circus."

This brings us to the Philly Zoo elephants - Petal, Dulary, Bette and Kallie. The huge animals were confined in a quarter-acre enclosure, which animal activists insisted was criminally small. After years of protests, organized by Bessey, the zoo planned to enlarge the space. When funding fell through, and after Bette injured Dulary's eye in a 2005 attack, the zoo decided to send the elephants to live elsewhere, but would still own them. Dulary was an Asian elephant, the other three African.

The intended rescue plan was ill-starred.

In 2006, Philadelphia planned to send the three Africans to the Baltimore Zoo. The idea was to keep them together as the "family unit" they had become, according to the zoo's chief operating officer, Andy Baker.

When Baltimore lost the funding it had expected to expand its elephant quarters, that plan dropped dead.

So did Petal, at age 52 in June 2008.

With great press coverage, Dulary was sent to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., in 2007. She died there in December 2013 at the age of 50.

Bette and Kallie, who are now 33, were shipped to the Pittsburgh Zoo's International Conservation Center in 2009. Activists complained they might be bred and they were too old for that.

In an interview, zoo president Vik Dewan told me any thought of breeding them has been scrapped.

Activists such as Bessey also said the amount of acreage was too small for Bette and Kallie at ICC, an extension of the Pittsburgh Zoo, located in Fairhope, about 100 miles from Pittsburgh.

Things seemed settled, if not happily, for the elephants.

In July 2011, three elephants from Botswana arrived at ICC and in November 2001, Bette and Kallie were separated when Kallie was shipped to Cleveland's Metroparks Zoo.

I asked Dewan, what about the "family unit"?

"Bette integrated with the group, Kallie did not," Dewan said. Keeping with the "best interests" of Kallie, she was relocated to Cleveland, which had recently acquired several elephants Kallie had been familiar with earlier in life, before she and Bette came to the Philadelphia Zoo in 2004, he said.

"The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo houses Kallie and four other elephants in a space consisting of fewer than two acres," said Bessey.

"The best home for Dulary was the Elephant Sanctuary and the best home for Bette and Kallie," said Dewan, "at the time was ICC, then circumstances changed."

Bessey believes, and I agree, since circumstances changed, and may change again, the best protection for Bette and Kallie, the Philadelphia Zoo's "girls," as Dewan calls them, is transfer to the Performing Animals Welfare Society in Galt, Calif. That sanctuary volunteered to take all three African elephants a decade ago.

Is the offer still open? I asked PAWS president Ed Stewart.

"It's not out of the question, for sure," Stewart said, "but we'd have to take a hard look at it" because PAWS recently took in three African elephants from Toronto.

I think Stewart didn't want to say "yes" for fear of committing to something not possible at the moment. Not to be macabre, but during the conversation he said three PAWS elephants already have outlived life expectancy for captive elephants.

Since a transfer would take some time to arrange, my feeling is Philadelphia should start talking to PAWS now to put a hold on inevitable PAWS vacancies.

Since there is no realistic chance of the "girls" ever returning to Philly, PAWS is where Bette and Kallie belong, to live out their lives together in near freedom - and no more changing circumstances.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky