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Dumbo Behind Bars: Elephant-Sized Controversy Arises Over Captive Elephants

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For years and years parents have taken their children to zoos to see exotic animals, animals that they don’t get to see everyday. They want to see lions and tigers and bears. Oh my! High on the the list of animals to be seen are elephants, nature’s gentle giants. These cute, (hardly) cuddly animals are the largest of the land mammals. But all of that could change. Elephants could be removed from zoos forever if In Defense of Animals (IDA) and a handful of scientists and activists get their way.

June 20 highlighted the International Day of Action for Elephants in Zoos.  In Defense of Animals (IDA) and activists in over 30 cities worldwide (including L.A., Washington D.C., and more) participated in a day of demonstration to inform the public about the travesty of keeping Dumbo locked up – even Salt Lake City had one demonstrator brave the torrential rain in order to bring justice to our big grey friends.

Elliot M. Katz, DVM, President of IDA said that “Zoos can no longer ignore the mounting scientific evidence of the devastating effects of captivity on elephants.” Infanticide, Herpes and tuberculosis are just a few of the ailments prevalent in captive elephants, and zoo populations are not self sustaining, unlike populations in natural environments.

On their day of demonstration, IDA wanted to focus on the fact that it isn’t so much about kind or unkind keepers or members of the public, but about outdated policy. Elephants just aren’t meant for the cage (unlike birds and snakes and the like, which thrive in small, cramped and confined areas).

Here are some facts about elephants as presented by IDA:

  • Wild elephants walk long distances daily in home ranges measuring hundreds of square miles. The typical zoo exhibit confines elephants to a few acres or less.
  • Zoos drastically shorten the lives of both African and Asian elephants.
  • Over half the elephants who died in Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos since 2000 did not reach the age of 40; wild elephants live 60-70 years.
  • Elephants in zoos suffer serious health and psychological problems, including chronic foot infections, arthritis, abnormal behaviors, early infertility, high infant mortality and stillbirth rates.

I understand that elephants aren’t meant for the cage. No city zoo is large enough to provide elephants with the space that they need to roam. But elephants aren’t the only ones. What about lions? And tigers? And bears? Oh my! It seems as though no zoo is big enough to comfortably hold any of these cute and cuddly animals, let alone the not so cute nor cuddly creatures that claim their residence at the local zoo. And suppose there was a zoo large enough; it would take hours (or luck) for patrons to find the animals they want to see.

So, what is to be done? Should elephants be released? Should zoos be done away with? Or is it OK to bring the wilderness to the inner city and give kids the chance to smile when they see a real-life elephant for the first time?

Photo Credit: Adam Foster | Codefor via flickr under Creative Commons License




13 comments
  1. Cam

    I read above that IDA has a “radically anti-zoo slant.” Good! Shouldn’t any group that really cares about animals? Shoving wild animals into small enclosures and then exploiting them for profit is just wrong. How is it that some of you don’t understand that???

  2. Rob Laidlaw

    Please people…pick up a book and read about elephants. The falsehoods and misrepresentations of fact in your postings would embarrass even an informed child.

    Elephants do live into their 60s and 70s in the wild. In fact, there are many elephants in their 60s in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. There are even females in their mid to late 50s that have had calves.

    Saying that elephants don’t need space completely ignores their structure, phsyiology, communication and behaviour. Everything about them is built for a wide-ranging mobile lifestyle.

    The idea that all elephants have it rough in the wild is nonsense. In some range countries poaching and human/elephant conflict is a problem, but in other areas it’s not and elephant populations are stable or, in some cases, increasing. I’ve been to some of those areas.

    Most elephant conservationists dismiss the role of zoos and say they have no legitimate role to play in saving elephants. That’s because elephants don’t have trouble breeding in the wild, they just need to be left alone.

    In zoos, elephant populations are diminishing because of infanticide, rejection, and early mortality of adults. North America’s zoo elephant population is unhealthy, riddled with TB and Elephant Herpes Virus, and many elephants suffer from lack of mental stimulation, resulting in a broad range of abnormal behaviours. It’s a real mess.

    So…please, get informed. Being naive and gullible is fine, but not when it comes at the expense of the elephants.

  3. Norm

    Zoos are relics from the past, from the days of Victorian animal collectors and Teddy Roosevelt’s African safaris, the days of dominating nature and other cultures. They are changing their “brand”, trying to keep their audience, making themselves more family-friendly and bolting on a conservation and education message. But this image is tissue-thin: they are firmly in the entertainment industry. These days there are plenty of entertainment alternatives, and for sure a lot of better ways to learn about wildlife and nature. There is no “nature” in the artificial “naturalistic” zoo enclosures: no bugs under rocks, birds in the trees, rustling in the bushes, changing seasons, no complexity — instead, just a few animals standing around, waiting to be fed and surrounded by people who look at them for a few minutes until their attention wanders and they move on. We don’t need zoos any more, and certainly conservation doesn’t depend on them. If you genuinely care about wildlife, give your money to WWF or Conservation International, not to the cash register at a zoo.

  4. calico

    Finally some progress on recognizing some animals don’t belong in little enclosures! I hope zoos realize there are some things more important than having a flagship exhibit.

    Crimson Wife wrote : “Today’s zoos do not mistreat animals and most of them go to great lengths to make the enclosures naturalistic.”

    If an animal needs X to thrive and the zoo cannot give him X, isn’t that mistreating him?

    This has nothing to do with being elitist. It has to do with doing what right for the animal. If you want to see elephants, turn on the TV.

    I’d be more likely to visit zoos if they did do reforms like this. It lets me see some animals without having a guilty conscience or having the trip ruined by seeing so many pacing, nervous, stressed, and unhappy animals.

  5. M. Isabel

    Here is a great website about an outstanding organization that dedicated to true elephant conservation, i.e. helping elephant populations to thrive and co-exist with native people in the wild http://www.elephantvoices.org/.

    The function of this group is to keep elephants thriving in their native habitat, as opposed to the zoos mission to keep elephants alive in tiny dirt or cement pens, behind bars, forcing them to do circus acts, give rides, paint, or stand with no where to go except the other corner of the exhibit or the other side of the cage. It’s a disgrace that zoos, especially AZA “accredited ones” exploit elephants to death. Zoos are true consumers of elephants rather than true conservationists.

  6. Rob Laidlaw, CBiol MIBiol

    As someone who has worked on addressing wildlife in captivity problems for the past three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to make site visits to nearly 1,000 zoos around the world. I’ve seen the best and the worst that the zoo world has to offer, not only to elephants but to a multitude of other animals as well. I have also observed elephants in the wild and worked on elephant conservation projects.

    What astounds me most about the elephant debate is the commentary from regular people, most of whom seem to have never picked up a book or watched a television show about elephants. As the most studied mammal in the world, the biology and behaviour of elephants is well documented. In fact, in some populations, the entire life history of elephant groups are known. Resource material, both scientific and popular, is readily available for anyone who makes even a token effort to find it.

    The facts presented by IDA about natural elephants lifestyles are rather conservative. While they say natural elephant home ranges are measured in the hundreds of square miles, in actual fact that’s the extreme low end of the scale. Most elephant home ranges are much larger, sometimes measuring in the thousands of square miles.

    For the record, the minimum standard for one elephant in an AZA acccredited zoo is 1800 sq ft or the equivalent of 9 parking lot spaces. That’s 60,000 times smaller than the smallest known home range for an elephant in the wild. The space standard for night quarters is more than 200,000 times smaller. That’s not a whole lot of space.

    The contention by a previous reader that elephants only walk to find food and water is absurd and shows a profound level of ignorance about animal behaviour. In fact, elephants move from one area to another for a variety of reasons, such as moving to a favourite resting area, finding mates, socializing, for thermoregulation or even to visit the bones of dead relatives, to name just a few reasons. Like many other animals, they are not automatons and move about for a range of reasons.

    With regard to North American zoos taking good care of elephants, the record speaks for itself. The elephant population is decreasing each year due to infant and early adult mortality. As well, the population is riddled with chronic behavioural problems, widespread foot and tusk problems, arthritis, circulatory issues, obesity, diseases such as Tuberculosis and Elephant Herpes Virus, as well as infant rejection and infanticide. That’s not exactly a healthy population.

    If zoos were truly concerned about elephants, they would put their money toward in-situ initiatives that save habitat, protect existing elephant populations from poaching and that mitigate human-elephant conflict. They make only a token contribution in that regard. Instead, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars building ridiculously small, barren enclosures that do nothing to address elephant needs and that make no contribution whatsoever to elephant conservation.

    Before criticizing IDA, it might be worth picking up a book or learning something about elephants. Nothing they say is particularly radical or off-base and it’s all corroborated in the scientific and popular literature, documentary films, etc.

    North American zoos rely on an ignorant, ill-informed public for support and, as the previous comments show, they’re usually not disappointed.

  7. Taylor

    What I meant to say was how come all the Asian Elephants from the San Diego Wild Animal Park are all 43 years or older.

  8. Taylor

    Yes, IDA is extremely anti-zoo slanted. This article seems like it is as well. The article mentions that since 2000 only half of elephants have lived to 40. If this is true then how come all the Asian elephants are all 43 years or older? How come there are elephants in zoos alive right now in their 60’s. Elephants are definitely living to their potential life span in captivity. They weren’t before because many of the elephant enclosures were too small and the care of them was in its infancy. Now zoos know they need more space and are building multi-acre elephant exhibits. This is the responsible thing to do as it is important that people can see elephants. If they don’t see them they are a lot less likely to care about them and thus they won’t donate to elephant conservation programs in Asia and Africa. Eventually this would lead to extinction for elephants. Trust me, I know plenty of elephant keepers, and elephants do just fine in captivity.

  9. RowanM

    Zoos are the ones with outdated facts (and philosophies), not IDA. The fact is elephants in zoos are dying on average at half their natural lifespan, and the number one cause of death is foot and joint related problems from standing around. It’s NOT true that elephants only walk to find water -that’s a hopelessly unscientific claim zoo extremists like to spout all the time.

    Zoos are nothing more or less than exotic menageries, I don’t care how “naturalistic” the cages seem. Maybe the bars aren’t as obvious as they were 100 years ago, but the animals are just as miserable. All because you want to see them up close – how elitist is THAT?

  10. Stephanie

    IDA has a radical anti-zoo agenda. Zoos are taking great care of elephants. In fact, without accredited zoos, elephants would be in much worse shape. People should visit the elephants in zoos, learn the facts from reputable sources, and make up their own minds — http://ow.ly/eP5s

  11. Gentry

    The facts as presented by IDA are just that, IDA’s facts and not actual facts. Elephants don’t walk long distances unless they have to move to find food and water. They don’t do it because they need the exercise. It’s not about the amount of space for elephants but the quality of space where they live. Wild elephants don’t live to 60 or 70 years of age. In Indonesia Sumatran elephants are being poisoned wholesale. In Africa they are being poached for their ivory. In India they’re shot when they partake of food in farmer’s fields or enter populated areas moving from one fractured habitat to the other. If a wild elephant makes it to 20 or 30 they’re lucky. The facts IDA uses to characterize the living conditions for elephants in zoos are hopelessly out of date. Elephants are receiving excellent care in accredited zoos. IDA just dosn’t want to admit it. Why? It’s not because they give a hoot about elephants. It’s because they are using elephants to meet their main goal…eliminating zoos. At zoos near where I live IDA protestors showed up on June 20th but no one really seemed to care. The media ignored the protestors. The media and the public are getting the message about IDA and their elephant campaign. It’s a thin tissue of misinformation and out right fabrications. IDA if you really cared about elephants you’d put your substantial resources to support field conservation and join with zoos to care for the North American population. But you won’t because you really only care about one thing – getting rid of zoos.

  12. Crimson Wife

    I find the whole anti-zoo argument very elitist. Most families will never have the disposable income to travel on safari to Africa in the hopes of seeing large game in their natural habitat. If we want children to grow up caring about endangered animals, we need to expose them to those animals. Today’s zoos do not mistreat animals and most of them go to great lengths to make the enclosures naturalistic.

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