In 1998, the Detroit Zoo made a historic decision that gave other zoos an opportunity to change how they think about the captivity of elephants — among nature’s most intelligent, self-aware creatures. The zoo retired a pair of aging elephants to a sanctuary in California that gave them plenty of room to roam and encouraged other zoos to make a similar choice. About five dozen Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos still have elephants, and some were recently criticized by the activist group In Defense of Animals in its 15th annual list of the “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America,”
The San Rafael, California-based group cited, among other problems, elephant deaths, the use of bullhooks to exact control over the massive animals and keeping them in solitary confinement or subjecting them to brutal winters.
In Defense of Animals says “zoos like to claim they have changed and left the bad, old days behind,” but continue to “use elephants to attract and entertain customers.”
Michigan’s harsh winter weather was among the reasons cited by the Detroit Zoo for moving elephants Wanda and Winky to more favorable climates. Both were suffering from chronic foot problems and severe arthritis — a common ailment among captive elephants, believed to be the result of living in small area where they often stand on hard, flat floors for long periods of time. In the wild, elephants live in warm climates and roam vast areas, often walking many miles a day.
The Detroit Zoo was the first zoo in the country to decide solely on ethical grounds to no longer keep elephants. In the years since, more zoos have made the same decision, but others, recognizing elephants’ appeal to visitors, continued their exhibits.
Not all the zoos on the In Defense of Animals list are Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited. The AZA has hardened its elephant-care standards with management plans that require the social, behavioral, psychological and physical needs are met for each of the approximately 165 African and 140 Asian pachyderms in zoo captivity.
Whether zoos should confine elephants is a values judgment, rather than a scientific question, according to some experts. Zoos not only support field conservation initiatives in elephant range countries, but also provide public education and research — which they likely wouldn’t do if elephant welfare was severely compromised by captivity, according to National Geographic.
Patch reached out to the AZA for comment but did not immediately hear back. We’ll update this post as more information becomes available.
In Defense of Animals disputes that zoos have substantially improved conditions for their captive elephants.
“Clearly, elephants are not thriving in constricted zoo exhibits, no matter how fresh the paint or the addition of an acre or two,” the organization said. “Elephant deaths continue to outpace births due to captivity-caused conditions like obesity, arthritis and foot disease. Still, zoos are spending millions of dollars on renovating or building new exhibits, even though there aren’t enough elephants to fill them.”
Here is the list of the “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America” for 2018:
No. 1, The Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York: The zoo said in 2006 it would shut down its Asian elephant exhibit. After the the 48-year-old elephant Maxine was euthanized in November, the zoo hasn’t said what will happen to its two elephants, Patty, 48, and Happy, 47. The two elephants are separated because Happy doesn’t get along with other elephants, according to the zoo. The Nonhuman Rights Project has sued to send Happy to an accredited elephant sanctuary.
No. 2, the Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia: In Defense of Animals says the Natural Bridge Zoo, which isn’t AZA-accredited and has been on the list for five years, is a “roadside atrocity” that keeps the African elephant Asha in solitary confinement under conditions that violate even the most minimal standards of care.” Asha was 2 in 1985 when she captured in the wild and sold to the Natural Bridge Zoo. There, Asha “has been forced to give rides to tourists in the hot summer sun, walking in the same endless circles for decades.”
No. 3, the Dallas Zoo, Dallas, Texas: The Dallas Zoo was among three that received “the stolen 18” elephants clandestinely flown out of Swaziland in 2016, enraging conservationists who said removing elephants from the wild for display in zoos is cruel. The pachyderms also went to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska. The zoos said the transfer was necessary after the national park where they lived said they would be culled because of prolonged drought conditions. In Defense of Animals said that two years after the transfer, the Dallas Zoo “upended upended these traumatized elephants’ lives once more” and shipped the bull Nolwazi and his daughter, Amahle, to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California, for breeding, “severing their bonds with the Swazi elephants left behind, some of whom may even be their relatives.”
No. 4, Louisville Zoo, Louisville, Kentucky: In Defense of Animals called out this zoo for “its repeated artificial insemination assaults on Mikki, a 33-year-old African elephant.” The last attempt was successful, and Mikki is expected to give birth this summer. If the calf survives — and the odds are strong it won’t, according to some studies — it will be born into “an environment that couldn’t be further from that found in nature, where elephant babies are born into nurturing family units that include their mothers, grandmothers, siblings, and doting aunts and their young offspring,” In Defense of Animals said. “Without this, Mikki’s calf will lack the upbringing necessary for normal development.”
No. 5, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island: The state of Rhode Island was the first in the nation in 2016 to prohibit the use of the bullhook — a steel-tipped tool that resembles a fireplace poker — on elephants in traveling shows and circuses. But the Roger Williams Park Zoo was exempted from the ban after it said that without the bullhook, “zookeepers and other animal handlers would not be able to manage elephants and they could not be kept in captivity.” In Defense of Animals called on the zoo to switch to a protected contact method to manage African elephants “Alice, Ginny and Kate. An even better solution would be for the zoo to retire its elephants to an accredited sanctuary.
No. 6, Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham, Alabama: The zoo said its “bachelor herd” of four bull elephants formed “a brotherhood of sorts,” yet it has separated them. In 2015, Tamani, 10, was sent to the Kansas City Zoo for breeding, and last year, 17-year-old Ajani was shipped to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas for the same reason. World-renowned elephant experts say bull elephants form close bonds that continue for many years and they can even have a “best friend.” In Defense of Animals says the zoo may proclaim the male elephants’ social relationships are important, but they are treated “like unfeeling commodities” and are “valued principally for their sperm.”
No. 7, Caldwell Zoo, Tyler, Texas: The zoo euthanized Rolinda last year when she was 46, an age where female elephants in the wild are in their prime, In Defense of Animals said. The natural life expectancy of an elephant is 60 to 70 years. The elephant’s death left Tonya, a 41-year-old elephant, without companionship, which the organization said is “a highly unnatural, psychologically cruel and unhealthy state for members of this social species.” Keeping a solitary elephant is a violation of AZA standards. Three other elephants at the zoo — Chip, Chico and Binti — all died at the zoo between 24 and 44 years of age of “unknown causes,” according to public records. In Defense of Animals asks the zoo “to do the right thing” and relocate Tonya to an accredited sanctuary, “where she can live a more natural life among other elephants.”
No. 8, Topeka Zoo, Topeka, Kansas: This zoo was No. 1 on the list in 2017 after the 35-year-old African elephant Shannon spent nearly 20 hours lying on the ground before her death. Ten months later, Sunda, a 58-year-old Asian elephant, was euthanized because of illness. The zoo said Sunda’s body was wearing out, but In Defense of Animals claimed her ailments were related to her life in captivity. With two remaining elephants — Asian elephant Cora and African elephant Tembo – the Topeka Zoo is positioned “to finally do the right thing and shut down its lethal elephant exhibit,” In Defense of Animals said. The organization said the elephants don’t have adequate space to move around, the zoo is in a cold climate damaging to the animals’ physical and psychological health and well-being, and have an “unsuitable” social situation due to the fact that the zoo mixes Asian and African elephants, which are separate species.
No. 9, Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, New York: It made for a catchy headline when the Seneca Park Zoo adopted a dog to live with senior elephants in August, but In Defense of Animals said the four pachyderms aren’t aging at all, but “have simply been debilitated from living in small, unnatural zoo enclosures for their entire lives.” Instead, they’re middle-aged — Genny C. is 41, Lilac is 40, and Moki and Chana are both 36. “Inadequate captive conditions cause maladies like lameness, joint disease, and arthritis, which are normally associated with old age in humans,” In Defense of Animals said. “Zoos intentionally misuse terms like ‘senior,’ ‘elderly,’ and ‘geriatric’ to deflect the fact that captivity cripples and kills elephants prematurely,” the organization said.
No. 10, Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: The zoo is expanding habitat for elephants Ruth and Brittany with its “Adventure Africa” exhibit, but In Defense of Animals said the habitat would be better named “Africa on Ice.” Milwaukee is brutally cold during its long winters, “making it completely unsuitable for elephants,” In Defense of Animals said, noting that a semi-heated outdoor area for the elephants “is a pathetic concession that will utterly fail to satisfy the elephants’ innate need to roam.” The zoo also plans to add as many as five more elephants, though it hasn’t said how it plans to acquire them, and called the whole exhibit “an elephant-sized mistake.”
In Defense of Animals gave the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon, its “Hall of Shame” award. The zoo’s “Happy Hour” summertime show features different animal species, including a bull elephant that was made to perform circus tricks, like sitting on his hind legs and kneeling.
“Dishonorable mention” went to Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia, where the Asian elephant Shirley, captured as a baby in Sri Lanka, in 1944. The oldest living elephant in captivity at around 75 years old, Shirley was passed from circus to circus for 46 years and starred in two films before she finally ended up at Wild Adventures years ago. Four other elephants retired from the circus also lived with Shirley until their deaths, but now she is the solitary survivor, “a crushing sentence for an animal who depends on the companionship and comfort of other elephants.” In Defense of Animals says her longevity is “a sad mystery, given her hellish life.”
Elephants are in serious decline in Africa and Asia due to the double whammy of poaching and habitat destruction. There are likely fewer than 500,000 between the two continents, with Asian elephants the most threatened, according the International Union for Conservation and Nature. There are only 40,000 to 50,000 wild elephants remaining in Asia and there are thought to be about 415,000 elephants remaining in Africa. Elephants are often killed for their ivory in Africa, but in Asia, poaching is not as big of a problem. There, elephants are most often killed in conflicts with humans.