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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Elephants In The Room

With almost certainty, there is no wild animal which has a more complicated, intimate relationship with humans than the elephants.  Sometimes I think that one or two of the large carnivores – the lion, the wolf – might rival it, but then I settle back on my original position.   Elephants have been used for warfare on three continents, sharing the battlefields on the ancient world with Alexander the Great and Hannibal of Carthage.  They have worked the forests of South Asia as loggers for millennia.  They have been worshiped as gods, hunted for sport and ivory, and carried kings and emperors upon their backs.   They have fought and died in the Coliseum and been gifted to rulers as symbols of power and might.  In the modern era, they appear frequently on TV and in the movies.  Tourists flock to see them in the parks of Africa and Asia.  They are the stars of zoos and circuses.

For most of us, our experiences with the great big beasts are confined the last sentence.  Elephants have been displayed in America since before there was an America, and certainly before there were any formal zoos here.  Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries, a zoo could hardly be considered a zoo at all unless it had an elephant, preferably a gigantic specimen who was tolerant enough of children to permit rides.  Jumbo of the London Zoo was probably the ideal... apart from the periodic bouts of rage.

Those days may not be with us for much longer.

With the exception of the whales and dolphins – which only a tiny handful of American facilities display – elephants are the most controversial of zoo animals.  They are the species that people are most likely to be critical of the keeping of.  Even some keepers I know are dubious about the suitability of elephants to life in a zoo… though none are foolish enough to express their opinion to an elephant keeper.  Those guys are intense.

So what is it about elephants?  Their size dictates that they require large enclosures – the most frequent critique leveled at zoos is that they can’t provide large enough spaces for them.  Their intelligence means that they require consider stimulation, often provided by training and enrichment.  Their social nature (of females and their young, at any rate) means that an exhibit must be large enough to accommodate a group of at least three.  They are one of the most expensive and labor-intensive of zoo animals, usually requiring a dedicated staff, that is not shared with other animals.  For most of zoo history – at least until the shift began away from working with elephants free-contact – they remained the most dangerous of zoo animals, responsible for the most zookeeper fatalities.

Today, most zoos with elephants are going in one of two directions.  Some zoos are doubling-down and expanding their habitats, investing heavily in large, state-of-the-art exhibits that provide room to roam and are equipped to handle multi-generational female herds in a protected-contact setting; most new facilities are also capable of managing reproduction… which often means maintaining at least one bull (and the complications that can arise from that).  Other zoos are washing their hands of elephants, taking the expense and resource requirements into account and deciding they can’t commit.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing the latter option.  A zoo could reasonably decide that they’d rather spend the 5-10 acres working with 10-20 other species, some of which could be of very high conservation potential.  It’s better not to keep a species in some cases than to keep it in facilities that are unsuitable.  I think the movement away from the “You aren’t a real zoo unless you have elephants" mentality has been a wonderful trend in zoos… though it hasn’t seemed to have spread as readily among members of the public, who will criticize an elephant-less zoo.

At any rate, I think that the decision on whether a zoo can manage elephants or not belongs to animal care professionals who have experience with elephants... not grandstanding politicians, as often proves to be the case.  Likewise, if a zoo decides that they do not want to manage elephants, that should be their decision, and no politician should strong-arm them into keeping pachyderms just because they are a big draw.

I do, however, feel that there are zoos that do elephants and do them well.  Obvious among these are the facilities that can devote large tracts of land to their elephants, such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the North Carolina Zoo.  Plenty of urban zoos manage the species just fine as well – the Dallas Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo, Zoo Miami, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and the National Zoo being a few examples.  Size isn’t everything.

What does make a suitable elephant habitat?  Space is important, yes, both in terms of quantity and quality – are their dirt areas for digging, pools for wallowing, shade structures, etc?  Is the zoo able to maintain an appropriate social grouping – a minimum of three?  Are the keepers able to implement sufficient training and enrichment to provide physical and mental stimulation, as well as to provide appropriate care for the surprisingly delicate bodies of elephants?

When the PAWS sanctuary of California took in the Toronto Zoo elephants, they boasted of their spacious paddocks.  What they can’t boast of, however, is getting their elephants managed as a cohesive social group, and the three elephants from Toronto were never maintained as a herd at PAWS.  Furthermore, the hands-off approach of the sanctuary meant that some elephant care procedures, such as maintaining proper foot health, become more difficult without constant training from the keepers.  Both American elephant sanctuaries have also had incidence of tuberculosis, a serious disease that also occurs in the zoo populations, showing that sanctuaries don’t necessarily provide better veterinary care, or that a big enough roam to walk around solves all ills.

Given proper environments and care, elephants will thrive in a zoo setting.  For proof, look no further than the two recent imports of African elephants from Swaziland toAmerican zoos since the turn of the millennium.  Wild-born elephants, accustomed to roaming small, crowded national parks, settled in comfortably in American zoos and have adjusted to the zoo routine, learned the workings of protected contact, responded positively to training, and have even bred.

Elephants are big animals, and they take a big commitment to ensure proper care.  They definitely aren’t for every zoo.  Heck, I’ll say they probably aren’t for most zoos.  But I feel like it is incorrect to claim, as some zoo critics do, that they cannot be happily and healthily maintained under human care.  


  1. Considering everything you've written here, would you say that In Defense of Animals' annual Top 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list actually brings attention to actual poor welfare standards, or just tries to push an agenda?

  2. Interesting question. Reluctantly, I'm going to have to go with pushing an agenda. I say "reluctant" because I acknowledge that keepers can be very sensitive to criticism, sometimes too sensitive, which is needed to bring about change. However, there have been accusations that IDA has leveled against some zoos which I don't believe to be true, or which don't take into account the individual animals involved (mostly thinking of San Antonio Zoo and Lucky) - and when they actively lobbied against one zoo building a bigger enclosure for its elephants, they completely lost me.

  3. Yeah, I'd have to agree.
    On an unrelated but serious note, it seems that the Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund aren't all they're cracked up to be, as Survival International has accused them of committing human rights abuses against tribal people in the Congo. More details here:

  4. There's unfortunately sometimes been a history of conservation and human rights coming into conflict. Conservation organizations have sometimes been accused of putting the welfare of other species above humans. An interesting read, if you are interested, is "At the Hand of Man" by Raymond Bonner (August 2015 book review), which describes some of those conflicts as they have played out in East Africa

  5. Perhaps I'll give that book a read.
    Hearing these reports against WCS, in particular, disappoints me, because I've had a desire to travel to see the so-called "best of the best" among America's zoos, and it seems like the WCS facilities would have to be struck off my list.

  6. I'm still reading more about this issue (and I must admit, the source website seems to have a bit of an agenda), but until then, I'm going to continue to support WCS. It's a facility that has done a tremendous amount of good for wildlife around the world... and people, too. Also, it's facilities are top-notch and are, as you said, among the best of the best of American zoos, both in terms of animal care and commitment to conservation.

  7. Perhaps your eventual verdict on this problem could be the subject of a future blog post?

  8. If not this specific case study, than certainly the potential for conflict between conservation and human rights issues, certainly. You seem to have some strong opinions on the subject and have done some research. If you'd like, you're welcome to provide an Op-Ed, which I'd be happy to publish

  9. I'd like to, but I'm a bit busy at the moment, so I can't.