IN HIS column

"Save the Elephants!",

Michael Smerconish expressed great concern about the animals' departure from the Philadelphia Zoo. Unfortunately, his concern is not about saving elephants, but about preserving his family's opportunity to view an elephant in a zoo.

Mr. Smerconish is obviously a zoo-goer, and zoos like to claim they are educational. But Mr. Smerconish clearly hasn't been educated about elephants, or he'd know that elephants are very social and that family is everything to them, just as family is important to him.

When taken from their families in the wild, as Kallie, Bette, Petal and Dulary were, the elephants are in essence deprived of life itself. Educated zoo-goers know that elephants need large spaces.

They recognize that when elephants are kept in small zoo enclosures of a few acres, they are denied their basic physical need to move freely for many miles a day over varied ground, frequently develop debilitating arthritis and foot and joint problems and die prematurely - on average, at half their natural lifespan.

An educated zoo-going family would realize that an elephant rocking back and forth is frustrated in her small, boring, barren enclosure. As Jane Goodall has said, "If they were human, we would say they are crazy."

A zoo's "enrichment" in the form of tires, balls and dead tree limbs can't come close to filling the void left by lack of space and family. In its 1998 Elephant Course Outline, the USDA - not an animal-rights organization by any stretch - acknowledged "there are no substitutes for walking in a restricted environment, no enrichment strategies that motivate a captive elephant sufficiently, no boomer balls or tire that replace walking and no food dispensers that will create activity patterns . . . that even come close to being beneficial to the long-term management of captive elephants."

Fortunately, some zoos are putting the elephants' needs first. Two years ago, the Detroit Zoo closed its elephant exhibit for humane reasons and sent its elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California, the same sanctuary that has offered Petal, Kallie and Bette a lifelong home where they can roam for a hundred acres over fields, lakes and hills.

Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan has committed to educating the public on why the zoo no longer displays elephants, explaining, "I wouldn't expect the American public, which has been told for 100 years it's OK to have elephants in captivity, to say. 'Oh, OK, we understand' right away. But we have an educational mission."

If only Philadelphia Zoo management had a similar goal: to educate the public about why Philadelphia and other zoos cannot come close to providing the social and physical needs of elephants. Fortunately, when educated, most people, especially children, empathize with the elephants and agree that the they should be given the best life possible, even though it means not seeing the elephants up close.

Mr. Smerconish and others may have a desire to see elephants, but elephants have real physical and emotional needs that should always take precedence.

The Philadelphia elephants can never be reunited with their families in their native homes, but at least at a sanctuary they can make friends with other elephants and live as close to an elephant's life as is possible in the U.S.

Dulary will soon be enjoying this life at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The Philadelphia Zoo should leave no elephant behind and also give Petal, Kallie and Bette an opportunity to live as elephants at the PAWS sanctuary - and not force them to live out their lives in another inadequate zoo enclosure.

It's only right for the birthplace of liberty to be in the forefront of the liberation of these amazing beings. *

Marianne Bessey is the spokeswoman for Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants.