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By Carla Hall, Times Staff Writer<br><br>
12:58 PM PDT, July 31, 2006<br><br><br><br><br><br>
When Gita, the L.A. Zoo's beloved 48-year-old female Asian elephant died suddenly June 10, zoo officials said that as recently as the day before she appeared to be doing well and had healed from a surgery on her left front foot. But the zoo's own medical records of the two months prior to Gita's death paint a picture of an elephant battling a number of ailments.<br><br><br><br>
Gita was suffering from several abscesses on her body, probably from leaning against the bars of her barn, and they continued to grow even as veterinarians treated them. The sole of her right foot had developed a sore that had to be debrided and then covered with a protective boot.<br><br><br><br><br><br>
And in the days before her death, when staff tried to administer intravenous antibiotics to her left foot, which was healing from surgery, the usually placid and accommodating elephant was "antsy" one day and "agitated" another, making treatment impossible.<br><br><br><br>
A complete necropsy on Gita is expected in the next couple weeks, according to an official of the lab performing the animal pathology.<br><br><br><br>
The medical records were obtained by the animal rights group In Defense of Animals through the California Public Records Act.<br><br><br><br>
"Over and over again, the zoo kept saying Gita is fine when in fact the medical records show the animal was suffering daily," said Catherine Doyle, a member of In Defense of Animals, who gave a copy of the records to The Times.<br><br><br><br>
Mel Richardson, a former zoo veterinarian who is now in private practice and was hired by the animal rights group to go over the medical report, said, "Before I got to the end of those records, I thought, 'Why don't they put her down?' They had to see she was doing badly."<br><br><br><br>
But zoo Director John Lewis said that Gita's health did not appear grim.<br><br><br><br>
"Yes, she had some things going on, but none was causing great alarm," said Lewis, who pointed out that Gita was still taking regular walks around the zoo, and this had curtailed post-surgery round-the-clock monitoring of her in April. "If we had thought for a moment that we were that close [to her dying], we would have had her back on 24-7 observation."<br><br><br><br>
Gita's ill health is a particularly controversial issue at a time when zoos in general and the L.A. Zoo in particular are under fire from animal rights activists for keeping elephants. Gita's death even attracted the attention of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who last year commissioned a study on whether the zoo should continue with plans for a new elephant exhibit or retire the pachyderms to a sanctuary.<br><br><br><br>
As if the zoo needed more bad news, a male chimpanzee named Judeo died last week after being bitten by a rattlesnake he picked up in his exhibit. Rattlesnakes are not uncommon in the zoo, although Lewis said staff have found fewer rattlesnakes than usual slinking about the zoo grounds this summer.<br><br><br><br>
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