PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating complaints by People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals that Pittsburgh zoo officials are being cruel by using dogs to herd its elephants.

The dogs are being used to enhance the safety of human animal handlers and are part of the zoo’s goal of “providing the best care possible for our elephants,” Tracy Gray, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette .

Two Australian cattle dogs — Major and Zeta — give the staff at the Pittsburgh Zoo a buffer zone when dealing with enormous pachyderms.

The dogs are bred to move livestock. In this case, the fearless canines are trained to handle massive elephants. They charge and nip at the elephants’ feet and trunks. The elephants have such respect for the dogs that even if they hear a handler say the name Major or Zeta, they take notice.

WEB EXTRA: See the elephants through the zookeeper’s eyes!

They are very alert when they hear the jingling of the dogs’ license on its chain as they come running around the corner.

But PETA said the dogs nip at the elephants’ legs and frighten the animals and that using dogs that way violates a state law banning the use of dogs to chase wildlife. That law is meant to keep dogs from flushing out animals for hunters and the Pennsylvania Game Commission had said it has no jurisdiction over zoos.

“We’ve determined that we lack any authority to regulated zoos,” Game Commission Spokesman Travis Lau said. “They are expressly exempted from needing a permit under the Game and Wildlife Code.”

That’s why the USDA, which issues the zoo’s permit to operate, is reviewing PETA’s complaint.

“We are looking into this to see what is going on at the zoo and whether or not they are in compliance with animal welfare act regulations,” USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said.

Watch Rick Dayton’s Report On Major & Zeta

A mother elephant at the zoo killed its handler in November 2002, when the animal pushed her head into the handler’s chest after he fell to the ground.

The zoo began using two Australian cattle dogs to help handlers control the elephants about three years ago, Gray said.

But Brittany Peet, PETA’s deputy director of captive animal law enforcement, says the group has video showing the elephants are exhibiting behavior that suggests they’re threatened and frightened by the dogs. PETA’s position is that zoos should keep handlers separate from elephants and use only positive reinforcement techniques to control them.

“The next time a 15,000-pound elephant turns on her captors, a small dog isn’t going to stop her,” Peet said.

Gray said the zoo’s handlers use “restricted and unrestricted contact.”

“Both methods use vocal commands, praise and food rewards,” Gray said. “If an elephant does not want to work with the keeper, the keeper leaves the area. We never punish our elephants for not cooperating.”

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