The elephant in the room: Are zoos suitable homes for the world’s largest land mammals?

Feb 3, 2020 | News

By JOHN WILKENS – The San Diego Union Tribune

Recent deaths of elephants at zoos in San Diego, Oakland underscore ongoing controversy.


San Diego’s first zoo elephants arrived by train in 1923, from San Francisco.

Queenie and Empress walked off a special railroad car and refused to budge. Harry Wegeforth, the zoo’s founder and a legendary quick-thinker — he sometimes stopped his car to snatch wild animals for the collection — tried another approach.

Suspecting that the elephants were used to being ridden, he climbed on one, another zoo employee got on the other, and off they went, clomping up Fourth Street, across the Cabrillo Bridge, and onto the zoo grounds in Balboa Park. People stopped what they were doing and stared.

Almost a century later, the world’s largest land mammals still make jaws drop. But nobody rides them to the zoo any more. Many things about their handling and care have changed as the zoo and its sister site, the Safari Park, became leaders in an industry that draws 180 million visitors annually and increasingly prides itself on conservation, not just entertainment.

Much remains unknown about elephants, too — witness the death in December at the zoo of 48-year-old Tembo. A “sudden change” in the African pachyderm’s condition prompted keepers to euthanize her, according to zoo officials. They said she’d been under veterinary care for age-related ailments for a while. Results of a necropsy are pending.


Her death came four weeks after another African elephant, M’Dunda, collapsed and died at the Oakland Zoo. She was 50 and had shown “no signs of existing medical issues, albeit her advanced age,” the zoo said. A necropsy is under way there, too.

Elephants also die in the wild, of course, and often violently. But their passing in zoos raises thorny questions about what is gained by keeping them captive.

2012 investigation by The Seattle Times analyzed the deaths of 321 elephants at accredited zoos in the U.S. over the previous 50 years and found that most died from “injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity.” Half of the elephants were dead by the age of 23, well below their expected life spans, according to the report.

“The decades-long effort by zoos to preserve and protect elephants is failing, exacerbated by substandard conditions and denial of mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity,” the newspaper concluded.

The difficulties and cost of keeping elephants healthy, coupled with persistent pressure from animal activists and other critics, have prompted more than 30 North American zoos to shut down their elephant exhibits since the early 1990s, including sites in Detroit, San Francisco, Toronto and other major cities. But zoos in Milwaukee and Atlanta have gone in the other direction, expanding their elephant exhibits or building new ones.

San Diego Zoo Global, the umbrella organization for the zoo and the Safari Park in Escondido, maintains one of the largest herds of elephants outside their natural ranges. The zoo’s Elephant Odyssey, designed for older animals, has three — ages 40, 43, and 56. There are nine at the Safari Park’s Elephant Valley, ranging from age 1 to 30.

Behind the scenes, keepers and scientists are studying the animal’s behaviors and biology in ways they believe have improved the care there and may help sustain populations in Asia, where elephants are considered endangered, and in Africa, where they are threatened. They point to the unusual breeding success of the elephants at the Safari Park — so productive that five of them were sent to a zoo in Tucson, Ariz., in 2012 to start a “satellite herd.” A baby was born there two years later, and the mother is pregnant again.

Such is the nature of the ongoing controversy about elephants in captivity that San Diego Zoo Global has been both praised and scorned for its breeding program. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums gave it an award in 2014 for “a truly significant captive propagation effort that clearly enhances the management of the species.” Last month, the activist group In Defense of Animals, citing a lack of “adequate space and social structures” for more babies, placed the Safari Park on its annual list of the “Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants.”


‘A chance to learn more’

On a recent weekday afternoon in a back corner of the elephant exhibit at the Safari Park, senior keeper Krissy Boeche called Neepo over for a health check.

He’s an 8-year-old African elephant. Like the others, he’s been painstakingly trained (with food as the reward) to stand next to metal bars and present various body parts for inspection: feet, trunk, teeth, ears.

On this day, Boeche also drew blood from one of Neepo’s ears for a new project aimed at better understanding a herpes virus that kills elephants. For a long time, experts believed the EEHV virus was a problem mostly for Asian elephants, but an outbreak last year at the Indianapolis Zoo changed that. Two African elephants, one 6 years old and the other 8, died within weeks of each other.

“We realized there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Dr. Lauren Howard, a zoo veterinarian. “This is a chance to learn more.”


The virus circulates in the Safari Park herd, a normal occurrence. But why does it become active in some elephants and not in others? Regular blood draws and other tests over the next year will help establish baselines, identify risk factors and point the way toward evidence-based care recommendations, Howard said.

“We’re trying to build up confidence in what we find, not just in one elephant, but the whole herd,” Howard said. “We want to be able to tell colleagues in the elephant-care community: This is the way you can monitor or manage your elephants to reduce and prevent death from herpes virus.”

Zoo workers are also looking for ways to find the virus that might help managers in the wild. Being able to do a blood-draw from an elephant there is difficult, if not impossible, and it’s dangerous. Can the virus be evaluated instead in saliva or feces, both easier to collect?

Neepo was born at the Safari Park, as were five other current occupants there. In general, zoo managers see births as evidence that animals are thriving.

Mindy Albright, the lead elephant keeper, said newborns also provide opportunities to record various developmental milestones — information that can help managers in the wild figure out how old certain elephants are and whether they are healthy. Another study of elephant milk at the park may lead to improvements in formula given to orphaned elephants in Africa.

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“It’s exciting that things we do here go back to help elephants in the wild,” she said.

Critics like Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Animal Welfare Society — or PAWS — think the money and effort would be better spent preserving and restoring wild habitats, beyond what SD Zoo Global, considered a leader in conservation, is already doing.

“That’s the problem we need to solve,” he said. “The only way to save elephants is to save their habitat. And that’s not the work of zoologists. That’s the work of politicians, land-use attorneys, economists.”

His group operates three sanctuaries in Northern California, including a 2,300-acre one that houses eight elephants sent there from zoos and circuses. “Even at our place, and we have more space than anywhere else, we can’t match what the elephants need,” he said. “There’s no ‘state of the art’ way to keep elephants in captivity.”

He said laudable research is being done on elephants in San Diego, but he questioned the validity of captive breeding.

In some cases, such as the California condor, captive breeding followed by reintroduction to the wild has been credited with saving a species from extinction. But nobody has taken a captive-born elephant and turned it loose in nature, Stewart said, so the main reason zoos breed them is to maintain populations for public display. Entrance fees fund the zoos, and elephants have long been popular with customers. Cute newborns trigger spikes in attendance.

“I don’t look at a baby elephant standing behind a fence as a success,” he said. “I think the public thinks if you can breed elephants, there’s nothing to worry about. But you’re creating animals that will just grow up in captivity and live in a deprived situation. There’s no other way to put it.”

Zoo keepers would disagree with the “deprived” part. Albright said elephants in captivity don’t have to scrounge for food or water. Poachers, climate change, fatal interactions with humans moving into previously undeveloped territory — life in the wild is no picnic, either.

“These guys,” she said, nodding at the park’s herd, “get to relax.”


Have trunk, will travel

When the group In Defense of Animals released its yearly “Ten Worst Zoos” list on Jan. 23, it criticized San Diego Zoo Global for breaking the social bonds between elephants at the Safari Park by moving several to other sites in 2019. Two males were sent to a zoo in Texas, two others to one in Alabama. A fifth elephant went to Zoo Atlanta.

“Zoos regularly attempt to justify moves like these by pointing out that wild male elephants leave their families at about age 13,” said Laura Bridgeman, director of In Defense of Animals’ elephant campaign. “However, in nature, young males separate gradually from their families — they are not suddenly ripped away from them to be transported across the country.”

The San Rafael-based group has been compiling the list for 16 years, and the one other time San Diego made it, in 2006, was for moving elephants, too. That came after seven African elephants were brought to the park from Swaziland, where managers said the animals risked being killed because of space constraints in the tiny country’s nature preserves. To make room for the arrivals, the Safari Park sent three of its elephants to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. All were dead within two years.

Zoo officials have not publicly responded to In Defense of Animals, but the industry moves animals around for a variety of reasons, including breeding and herd compatibility, and it’s rarely done hastily. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a Species Survival Plan that tracks the age, health, genetics and other factors of the roughly 300 elephants currently kept at about 65 accredited zoos in the U.S. The plan guides when and where elephants are moved.

Ongoing research at zoos into nutrition, physiology and reproduction also plays a role in transfers, according to the association.

While the debate about moving elephants around continues, zoos routinely point to another reason for keeping the animals in captivity. “One of our main efforts is to inspire all our guests to care about wildlife,” Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer for San Diego Zoo Global, told the Union-Tribune in a 2016 interview. “Getting up close to an elephant or feeling a bird swoop over us or seeing a bizarre insect — those are opportunities to transform someone so when they go home and hear about wildlife issues they can be ready to act.”

The potential audience is huge. According to industry estimates, more people go to zoos and aquariums in the U.S. than attend professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey games combined. A 2018 book, “The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation,” notes that annual visitors to zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers and natural history museums make up a tenth of the people on the planet.

But whether they are motivated to help animals later is an open question. Research has been mixed.

“People go to the zoo to laugh, eat popcorn and watch their kids run around,” said Lisa Landres, a former elephant keeper at the San Diego Zoo. “The amount of people enjoying animals for what they are you could count on one hand.”

Landres was a key whistleblower in a notorious elephant-mistreatment incident at the Safari Park (then called the Wild Animal Park) in 1988, which involved trainers disciplining an elephant by hitting her on the head repeatedly with wooden sticks. Landres later became an investigator for the Humane Society of the United States, traveling around the country for more than 10 years to inspect zoos and circuses. What she saw, she said, prompted her to leave that world.

“We can’t give elephants what they need in captivity,” she said. “We just can’t. A few enlightened zoos have come to the conclusion that if we can’t do it properly, we shouldn’t do it at all. But too many others just care about the money they can make, the bottom line.”

She’d like to see a day when people visit “hologram zoos” and there are no elephants in captivity. “If you want to see one in the flesh, you have to go where they live,” she said.

Her wish may come true. In North American zoos as a whole, the populations of Asian and African elephants are not self-sustaining. Previously productive elephants are getting too old to have babies, and there aren’t yet enough young ones to fill the gap.

But some zoos are more optimistic than others. At the Safari Park, plans are under way to build a new viewing area that will bring visitors closer to the elephant herd.


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