Elephants are good for zoos 

But are zoos good for elephants?

As part of what appears to be a slow, but growing trend, the Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest zoo in the nation, has recently decided to close its elephant exhibit. Dulary, the lone Asian elephant, is being sent to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and the three African elephants to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Although Dr. Andrew Baker, vice president for animal programs of the Philadelphia Zoo, insists the decision is a financial one, bad publicity and ceaseless protests undoubtedly contributed to the decision to allocate approximately $20 million and space to the children’s zoo and big cat, aviary and gorilla exhibits rather than to expansion and improvement of the elephant habitat.

Elephants in San Francisco are also being placed in sanctuaries after large public outcry over the deaths of two elephants within a two-month span at the city’s zoo in 2004.

Dr. Eliot Katz, a veterinarian and president of In Defense of Animals, began his battle with the San Francisco Zoo nearly four years ago after obtaining copies of the elephants’ medical records thanks to the Public Records Act.

“They were so disturbing, I cried. I could visualize what they were dealing with — the fistulas, arthritis, foot and joint disease, digestive issues, reproductive issues … The situation is, zoos are crippling elephants. They cut away the pads on their feet until there’s little left and treat them with high doses of pain killers that shorten their lives.”

Amid overwhelming public pressure, San Francisco Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo decided to place the two remaining elephants in a sanctuary. If the San Francisco Zoo ever wants to reinstate its elephant exhibit, it must adhere to city legislators’ new ordinance requiring 15 acres for the animals (as compared to the one-sixty-fourth of an acre previously provided). Considering the cost adding additional space would require, Katz views it as virtually a permanent ban.

“The tide is turning,” Katz observes. Noting that the Philadelphia Zoo is the second facility in recent weeks and the 11th zoo in the U.S. that has announced the closure of its elephant display, he adds, “The Philadelphia Zoo’s decision to close its elephant exhibit is part of a positive trend that reflects changing public opinion and an evolving understanding of the needs of elephants. Elephants are big animals that need big spaces. The Animal Welfare Act requires that zoos and circuses provide elephants with adequate space. Zoos are not meeting this requirement. Zoos should only hold elephants if they can provide the space and natural conditions that elephants need.”

“Elephants need three basic things,” states Scott Blais, co-founder of the Elephant Sanctuary, Tennessee’s 2,700-acre shelter for zoo and circus retirees and animals with behavioral and physical ailments: vast acreage, compatible herd members and live vegetation (as opposed to processed food).

Animal experts agree that elephants need room to roam. Quarter-acre habitats like the one in Philadelphia that previously housed the zoo’s elephants are not big enough for the world’s largest land mammals, who are accustomed to walking 18 hours a day, traveling as far as 30 miles. In fact, constant movement is vital for their physical health. Lack of exercise and long hours standing on unnatural substrate surfaces contribute to foot rot and arthritis, the leading causes of death among captive elephants.

Currently, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) requires only a minimum outdoor enclosure of only 18,000 square feet per elephant — the equivalent of six parking spaces — and interior space of a mere 400 square feet.
Condemning AZA requirements as “totally inadequate,” Katz claims, “Zoos are shortening elephants’ lives.” This claim is supported by a recent study that showed that more than half of the 40 elephants who have died at AZA-accredited facilities since 2000 were under the age of 40 (20 to 30 years less than the average expected lifespan).

The Humane Society of the U.S. applauded the Detroit Zoo in 2004 when it voluntarily brought to a close its 81-year-old elephant exhibit, but because most zoos do not act preemptively, activists and organizations are applying pressure. An AZA survey reports that 12 percent of zoos are responsive to negative pressure and would get rid of their elephants if popular opinion favored it.

Katz says zoos see the “writing on the wall” because of public pressure, media attention and a petition to the USDA to set standards for space and living conditions. The USDA is soliciting comments until Dec. 11 on all aspects of elephant care, including lack of space, unnatural substrates, unnatural social groupings, use of bullhooks, chains and other instruments of force.

“We’ve provided evidence of how mistreated elephants are,” Katz reflects. “We’re not ‘just’ animal rights activists; we have experts, too. The zoos are losing their authority with the public, and the public is demanding more.”

Elephants, among the most popular zoo animals, haven’t lost their star power with the public, but as people come to understand their basic needs, they’re sending a message to zoos: Phase out elephant exhibits and provide the elephants currently in captivity a more humane existence.


The Indianapolis Zoo responds…sort of

Eight African elephants reside at the Indianapolis Zoo, which welcomes 1.4 million paying visitors annually. Though zoo officials declined to be interviewed for this story, they did provide a written statement from President and CEO Mike Crowther:


“We believe that it is perfectly appropriate that some facilities close when they can’t provide for the physical and/or psychological well-being of elephants because of herd composition, physical facilities, budget, expertise or commitment. We, however, have a stable, well-integrated herd with good internal dynamics, a great facility and consistent, ongoing commitment, expertise and support.”

Director of Communications Judy Gagen reiterated that the zoo has no plans to close or expand the exhibit. She contends that “misinformation is rife” and disparages the “misinformation disseminated by PETA and IDA.”

The Indianapolis Zoo declined requests to provide any information about their zoo exhibit, including the amount of space allotted for the elephants, although Gagen insisted the exhibit exceeds AZA standards of 18,000 square feet.


Elephants in zoos: by the number


According to a report from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association dated March 17, 2006, 78 AZA-accredited zoos maintained elephants as of Jan. 1, 2005. Seventy-two plan to continue exhibiting elephants. One zoo that didn’t have elephants has added them: Alabama’s Montgomery Zoo. Only 40 of the 73 zoos have plans to improve existing exhibits or build new habitats for their elephants.

Facilities that have moved or have plans to move elephants to other facilities:

San Francisco Zoological Park, California
Detroit Zoological Park, Michigan
Lion Country Safari, Florida
Philadelphia Zoo, Pennsylvania
Chehaw Wild Animal Exhibit, Georgia
Henry Vilas Zoo, Wisconsin
Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, Louisiana
Mesker Park Zoo, Indiana
Frank Buck Zoo, Texas
Sacramento Zoo, California

Zoos that plan to “manage to extinction,” meaning no new elephants will be added, and when one elephant is left, it will be moved to a different facility:

Santa Barbara Zoological Park, California
Buttonwood Park Zoo, Massachusetts
Bronx Zoo, New York

Zoos that remain undecided:

Dallas Zoo, Texas



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Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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