From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1997:

The zoo management and animal rights communities shared mixed
shock, outrage, and grief on December 17 at the revelation by Newsweek that
the San Diego Zoo and the Chengdu Zoo in Sichuan province, China, had concealed
since July the deaths from dehydration and exposure of two extremely rare
white rhinos whom the San Diego Zoo had purchased from the Pittsburgh Zoo,
then sent to China in a deal that looked mighty like an even-up swap for the two
pandas who arrived at the San Diego Zoo from China a few weeks later and went
on public display November 1. Though aware that the rhinos were going to China,
the Pittsburgh Zoo sold the rhinos to the San Diego Zoo in part because of the San
Diego Zoo’s internationally recognized rhino breeding and handling: 77 rhinos
have been born at the San Diego Zoological Society’s Wild Animal Park in
Escondido, and of the 67 rhinos the zoo has transported to other facilities, the
only previous death it acknowledged in the aftermath of the losses was a rhino who
was shipped to Taiwan 18 years ago. Pittsburgh Zoo rhino curator Les Nesler
escorted the pair as far as New York City, saw them safely aboard a commercial
Boeing 747 cargo flight to Shanghai, and believed all would be well. However,
the arrangements were two weeks behind schedule, and in that interval, heavy
flooding hit central and eastern China, complicating ground transportation.

Originally the Chengdu Zoo wanted to haul the rhinos up river from Shanghai by
boat, but that couldn’t be done. The rhinos were also too big to travel by railway
car. Instead, they were loaded aboard trucks, without air conditioning, and
hauled through a part of eastern China called “the four ovens,” after four cities
known for their summer heat and humidity. The rhinos died 12 hours apart on day
five of the arduous trip. The Chengdu Zoo is now exhibiting just their taxidermically
mounted hides. Word of the loss was apparently kept from the public––and
the rest of the zoo community, including Nesler––to avoid having a furor disrupt
or even prevent the completion of the panda transaction, which the San Diego Zoo
had been working to arrange since 1990. Meanwhile, ANIMAL PEOPLE
learned through routine file-checking that the San Diego Zoo did in fact lose another
white rhino under comparable circumstances on November 8, 1987. That rhino,
a 26-year-old female, died of dehydration after spending 38 hours en route to the
Wildlife Safari zoo in Winston, Oregon, and then another 48 hours still in the
shipping container because her enclosure wasn’t finished.
The San Diego Zoo––no stranger to controversy––is also peripherally
involved in a potentially precedential Animal Welfare Act case in which
final arguments were heard on December 13 at the USDA administrative hearing
offices in San Francisco. The case concerns the acquisition of 24 animals of various
species purchased by Safari West, of Santa Rosa, California, from the San
Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo, and Fresno Zoo on June 8, 1994.
An antelope called a lechwe was found accidentally gored to death by other animals
in the load while they were still in transit, and a second lechwe was dead on
arrival in Santa Rosa. Los Angeles Zoo staffers Robin Noll and Kelley Greene,
who had accompanied Safari West owners Peter and Nancy Lang on the drive,
filed a complaint with the USDA, alleging that the deaths occurred because the
Langs kept the animals confined in the trailer for too long at a time and failed to
check often enough on their condition. The Langs are contesting the charges.
The New York Aquarium turned 100––as an institution––on
December 10. The present facility, however, dates only to 1957, having replaced
an aquarium that operated from 1896 to 1942 in Battery Park.
Elephant keepers everywhere are worried about the early December
discovery that a form of the common and frequently mutating herpes virus killed
both Kijana, the Oakland Zoo elephant calf who died mysteriously on October 7,
and a young Asian elephant who died at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in
April 1995. Said National Zoo veterinary pathologist Dick Montali, “We retrospectively
identified six similar cases in North American zoos, and know of a similar
case reported earlier from the Zurich Zoo.” However, identifying cases and
figuring out how to prevent or cure them are two different matters, and so far,
Montali acknowledges, “The exact source of this seemingly unique agent is
presently not known,” nor is it known whether the same disease afflicts elephants
in the wild––who are susceptible to several other forms of herpes.

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