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Pittsburgh Zoo Ordered To Stop Using Dogs To Stress Out Elephants

The zoo was using two cattle-herding dogs to keep an eye on the African elephants while in open areas with handlers. Federal inspectors, however, determined that the dogs were causing "behavioral stress" to the herd.

Last updated on February 2, 2015, at 7:21 p.m. ET

Posted on February 2, 2015, at 7:21 p.m. ET

Federal inspectors have ordered human handlers at Pittsburgh Zoo to stop using dogs to cause "behavioral stress" to its elephants.

The Jan. 7 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was released Monday by PETA, documented aggressive behavior by one of the dogs, including "growling and lunging at one elephant and entering its enclosure before being called back by the manager."

In ordering the zoo to stop using the dogs, inspectors cited the interaction along with television news footage from May that showed "elephants exhibiting signs of distress when charged by one of the dogs, including ear flapping, trumpeting, and turning and running away."

Allowing the dogs to engage in "unrestrained lunging and biting" may cause undue stress to the elephants, according to the report.

In a statement, Delcianna Winders, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation, called on the Pittsburgh Zoo to switch to more modern elephant managing techniques.

"When elephants, dogs, and human handlers freely mix, everyone is in danger," Winders said. "PETA is calling on the Pittsburgh Zoo to switch to safe and modern elephant-management methods — or, better yet, to retire the elephants to an accredited sanctuary where they'll be free from harassment for the rest of their lives."

PETA has argued that zoos should use barriers to separate handlers and elephants and use only positive reinforcement to control the large animals.

For its part, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium defended the use of herd dogs as a valuable elephant management tool.

"The introduction of the dogs has been a valuable tool as we continue to elevate the care and management of our elephant herd," Barbara Baker, president and chief executive of the Pittsburgh Zoo, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "The safety of our keepers and animals is a top priority and we provide an additional safety level with the use of trained cattle dogs."

The Australian cattle dogs read the behavior of the elephants and alert keepers to any disruption in the herd, preventing potential safety issues, said Baker, who called the practice a "low-stress method" of animal management.

"These methods, which have been scientifically proven and recognized by the USDA, ensure a calm and controlled interaction between an animal, the dogs, and keepers they work with," Baker said.

Since the arrival of the dogs in 2012, Baker noted that no keepers, elephants, or dogs have been injured.

The zoo has since started working with the USDA on a study regarding elephant welfare, "including a unique examination of stress," Baker said.

Pittsburgh Zoo / Via