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Remembering Petal

 A lifetime of bullhooks, cement, and chains  

African Home:  Petal was born in Tanzania, Africa in December 1955.  For about a year or so, she probably lived a happy life with her extended family, including her mother, aunts, sisters, brothers, and cousins.  At that time, Tanzania and much of the rest of Africa was well-populated with elephants.  Although poaching occured, it was not yet the rampant devastation it would become in the 1980's, and many elephants enjoyed life in extended family herds. 
African Elephant Family
From grass to cement:  Sometime in 1957, Petal was captured and shipped to the United States.  She arrived at the Philadelphia Zoo on May 13, 1957 (African Elephant Studbook, 2008).  At that time, importation of elephants was common and elephants could be purchased to be used for almost any purpose.  A Kansas City baseball team even bought two wild elephants to be used as mascots.  (Wild Elephants Bought as Athletics' Mascots, New York Times, July 16, 1955). 
Brutal training:  The most common training method during this time was to tie an elephant down with chains or rope and beat her into submission using bullhooks, a fireplace-poker like device with a sharp point on the end.  In fact, for the next 51 years, Petal was under the control of bullhooks.  She would live her entire life in the same quarter-acre enclosure and 1800 square foot barn, sharing the cramped space with one, two or even three other elephants. 
Kutenga:   In addition to a procession of Asian elephants, Petal shared her exhibit for much of her life with another African elephant named Kutenga, who had also been taken as a baby from her family in Africa.  Just like Petal, Kutenga lived most of her life in the same postage-stamp-sized exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo.  In 1991, when Kutenga was 27 and Petal was 36, keepers found Kutenga collapsed on the cement barn floor when they arrived one morning.  For six long hours, the zoo tried to get her to stand up, using everything from bullhooks to a tow truck, until Kutenga finally died.  It was reported that Petal was kept in the same stall during the ordeal and that she was there when Kutenga died.  (Campisi, Gloria, Pachyderm at the Zoo Packs It In, Philadelphia Daily News, August 1, 1991).   Nearly 16 years later, Petal would die in eerily similar circumstances.

McCampbell and Petal

Popular attraction:  During her confinement, Petal was used in various ways for entertainment and zoo promotions.  For nearly 50 years, she was forced to give rides to anyone who would pay.  A zookeeper was fired in 1995 for giving free rides on her to his friends.  Petal was also used for a variety of publicity gimmicks.  In 1983, the Philadelphia Daily News used her to select winners for NFL football games, providing her with slips of papers containing teams' names. She was competing with a "football-picking primate working for a Dallas newspaper."  (Clark, Joe, Anything Kanda Does, Petal Can Do Better, Philadelphia Daily News, November 27, 1983.)  When the Republican National Convention came to Philadelphia in 2000, Petal was forced to "create an original painting" using red, white and blue paint.  (Elephants are Painting at the Philadelphia Zoo, PR Newswire, July 30, 2000).  For yet another publicity ploy during the convention, Petal and Dulary were advertised as a photo opportunity where they were exhibited wearing "Bush" and "Cheyney" medallions around their necks.  (The Philadelphia Zoo's Pachyderms Don Their Best for the RNC, PR Newswire, July 27, 2000).
Dominated by a succession of keepers:  One unchanging element of Petal's life was forced submission to her keepers, who often changed every few years.  As detailed in a several news articles and on this website, Petal and her cellmates at the Philadelphia Zoo were always dominated by  keepers using the "free contact" method of elephant management, a fear- and violence-based training program using bullhooks.   One Philadelphia Zoo elephant trainer described elephants as "manipulative as children" with "intelligence equivalent to that of a four-year-old."  He went on to explain, "elephants live in a matriarchal society. In order for us to be the dominant figures, we have to be the top matriarch."  According to the trainer,  handlers have to be viewed as authority figures, people to be obeyed, and never challenged.... (Dougherty, Frank, Perils of Pachyderms Handling Elephants Fraught with Danger, Philadelphia Daily News, September 2, 1994).

Petal and trainer with Bullhook


Chained for life:  In addition to a never-ending series of bullhooks, Petal was also subjected to chaining for most of her life.  A few years ago, the excessive chaining was even a source for complaint from at least one zoo visitor.  
From the Philadelphia Daily News: "'What's wrong with the big guy?'   That's what Emily Moore, a Lansdowne woman who had just received a season pass to the Philadelphia Zoo as a Christmas present, asked a zookeeper as soon as she saw Petal.  The African elephant was leaning lethargically against a girder.  The zookeeper said that the 40-year-old, 9,000-pound Petal was not eating and 'next to exhaustion,' Moore later recounted, because the animal was straining at chains that the zoo was using to restrain her each night while workers fixed a broken gate. ... Zoo officials confirmed that the elephants were chained nightly for about two weeks this month while the gate was being fixed. But they said it was the only way to protect the animals.... Zoo officials said they followed the elephant-management plan developed with the San Diego Zoo, that Petal and Dulary had been chained overnight for most of their lives, and that the Philadelphia Zoo had largely discontinued elephant chaining about two or three years ago. ... Visitor Moore said Petal appeared in no shape for rides when she saw her on Jan. 15.  'The bigger elephant was just leaning against a girder and didn't move,' she said. That's when she asked the zookeeper about Petal. 'He said, "I can't work here with her anymore - it's too heartbreaking,"'    Moore recalled. " 'She is next to exhaustion from the chaining - she keeps fighting it. She's not getting any sleep and she's not eating.' " (Bunch, William, Trunkful of Trouble- Zoo Gets Complaints Over Chained Elephants,  Philadelphia Daily News, January 29, 1996.  Read the entire article here.)

Petal October 2006

Petal's spirit:  Despite a life dominated by chains and bullhooks, Petal had an indomitable spirit.  A zoo visitor describes an encounter with Petal in January 2007:   "Petal rushed over to the rock wall nearest Big Cat Falls as two zoo people walked along the walkway.  She probably thought they had food for her.  They didn't.  She drank from the water spout and then placed her front feet into the hole.  She also put her trunk over the wall next to the rhino, but he was not beneath.  I called Petal's name over and over.  She walked toward me and lifted her trunk.  I received a light shower of small particles of hay, dirt or something else.  Once I saw her rest her right front foot on her left front foot."

Petal October 2006


Petal's Questionable Health: Those who visited Petal frequently noticed that she often favored her right rear foot.  She would often rest or lean that foot against the rock wall surrounding her exhibit.  Petal was also seen displaying stereotypic behavior where she would stand in place for long minutes, swaying back and forth, bobbing and weaving.  Although she was videotaped doing this, zoo officials would publicly deny that any of the elephants ever displayed stereotypic behavior.  Zoo officials would also insist that Petal was in "excellent health" and had no foot problems.

Petal's chance for a new life:  In October 2006, Philadelphia Zoo director Vik Dewan announced that the elephant exhibit would close due to lack of funding and all four elephants would be transferred to different facilities within the next year.   Dulary, a 42-year-old Asian elephant who had been injured in a fight with Bette and kept in solitary confinement for over 18 months, was transferred to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee in May 2007, where she in thriving.  The Performing Animal Welfare Society in California offered an all-expenses paid free trip and forever home to Petal, Kallie and Bette, but zoo officials refused to let them go.   Instead, the African elephants continued to be confined in the admittedly-inadequate exhibit while awaiting transfer to a proposed breeding facility outside PIttsburgh.  As of the date of this writing, the breeding facility is still under construction.   

Elephants Leaving May 2007 sign

Petal's sad death:  Sometime in the pre-dawn hours of June 9, 2008, Petal collapsed in her cement stall.  According to zoo officials, she had not been lying down to sleep for many years.   Because elephants generally lie down to sleep, Petal's failure to do so indicates a possible underlying health problem.  Although the zoo has a 24-hour video-monitoring system, no one was watching it at the time Petal collapsed.  She lay on the cement floor until zoo employees arrived several hours later.  After attempts to force her to get up failed, she died at approximately 9:15 am.  An international animal-advocacy group, In Defense of Animals, filed a request for investigation with the USDA.  As of July 2008, the Philadelphia Zoo continues to refuse to release Petal's medical records (despite continued claims she was in "excellent health") and denies public access to any of the video from the night Petal collapsed.

Please read more about the investigation into Petal's suspicious death here.