For the sake of elephants in the
wild and in captivity, zoos must phase out their elephant exhibits, abandon
failed breeding programs and future capture plans, and strive to provide the
elephants who are currently in captivity with a more humane existence.
Nearly all captive
elephants were captured in the wild, and even though wild populations are
dwindling, zoos are still capturing more. Taken from their families and
homelands, elephants in zoos suffer from chronic physical ailments, social
deprivation, emotional trauma, and premature death. Many zoos still use cruel
and outdated circus-style training—beating elephants with bullhooks and keeping
them chained for long hours.
Zoos rob elephants of
their most basic needs, including social companionship and adequate space to
exercise. Zoos keep elephants in unnaturally small groups and routinely shuffle
them between facilities with callous disregard for the special bonds of
friendship between elephants.
Lack of exercise and long hours standing on hard surfaces
are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, the leading causes of
death among captive elephants. According to a study commissioned by the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, elephants in zoos have
significantly shorter life spans than their wild counterparts.
Elephants require vast spaces to roam, socialize, and
express their natural behavior. They are highly social animals who, in the
wild, live in matriarchal herds, forage for fresh vegetation, play, bathe in
rivers, travel as far as 30 miles per day, and are active for 18 hours per day.
Zoos' lack of space creates health problems in elephants,
such as muscular-skeletal ailments, arthritis, foot and joint diseases,
reproductive problems, high infant mortality rates, and psychological distress
(as is evidenced by repetitive swaying, head-bobbing, and pacing).
Captivity-induced health problems are the leading cause of death of elephants
in zoos—they are dying decades short of their expected life span.
The elephant standards adopted by the Association of Zoos
and Aquariums (AZA) are woefully inadequate, and many AZA zoos that display
elephants do not meet even these meager requirements. The AZA's indoor space
requirements can be satisfied with a stall that is only 20 feet by 20 feet in
area; this means extreme confinement for elephants who are kept indoors
overnight and during inclement weather. Outdoor enclosures need measure only 40
feet by 45 feet—about the size of a three-car garage.
The AZA does not prohibit keeping elephants in frigid
northern climates (and as a result, many elephants in these regions spend
months indoors each year), and it does not prohibit the use of bullhooks or
chains. At the Oregon Zoo, a 5-year-old baby elephant named Rose-Tu suffered
176 gashes and cuts after being repeatedly beaten with a bullhook on the legs,
shoulders, forehead, ear, and tail and then sodomized with the sharp hook; and
according to witnesses, an elephant named Chai from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo
was beaten with bullhooks and pieces of wood for 2 1/2 hours when she was "on
loan" to the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri.
Many zoos are investing millions of dollars to slightly
increase the size of their elephant exhibits, but elephants in captivity don't
need a few more square feet—they need, at minimum, a few more square miles.
Because of space limitations, zoos—no matter how well intentioned they may
be—simply cannot provide for elephants' physical and social needs. No amount of
expansion at a zoo will give elephants what is truly necessary for their
physical and psychological well-being.
Since elephants in captivity breed poorly and die
prematurely, the zoo industry is running out of elephants. In the not-too-distant
future, the zoo industry's ridiculously costly elephant exhibits will become empty ridiculously costly elephant
Elephant breeding programs are notoriously cruel and
ill-fated, yet zoos persist with their desperate attempts to impregnate
elephants, often resorting to highly manipulative techniques such as artificial
insemination, even though the results are often dead babies or miscarriages.
Many elephant pregnancies at zoos have ended in stillbirth, the
deaths of full-term calves in utero (while
the mother continued to carry the dead fetus), the deaths of mothers during or
shortly after giving birth, and the need to euthanize elephants because of internal
infections caused by decomposing fetuses. Baby elephants often succumb to the
deadly herpes virus.
Captive breeding will never contribute to the survival of
the species because elephants breed poorly in captivity and the offspring who
do survive can never be released into the wild. The bottom line is that zoos
breed elephants because few animals are more likely to attract hordes of zoo
visitors than a baby elephant.
The tens of millions of dollars that are spent each year at
zoos for a small number of elephants should instead be responsibly directed
toward elephant conservation work in Asia and Africa.
While zoos squander limited resources, legitimate
conservation efforts struggle for funding. On an annual budget of just $100,000
per year, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Africa
makes a difference for the preserve's 1,500 African elephants as well as for
the Kenyan farmers living near Amboseli who lose their crops to elephants every
The idea that zoos are saving
elephants by displaying them has been disproved. Elephants have been on display
in zoos for 200 years, yet they're facing extinction in the wild. Placing these
intelligent and complex individuals in conditions that are harmful for them,
just so that we can look at them, teaches us nothing.
Keith Lindsay of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project
believes that zoos have "next to nothing to offer" with regard to
education. According to him, "It is much better to watch films of real
elephants behaving naturally—walking, feeding, playing, mating, fighting—in
truly natural social groups of up to hundreds of animals ranging widely across
ecosystems than to see miserable captive elephants standing around in a bare
enclosure, no matter how 'naturalistic' the landscaping design may be."
Since 1991, 14 zoos in the U.S. have closed their elephant exhibits or
announced that they intend to phase them out, citing an inability to provide
proper care. This progressive trend must continue. In addition, zoos must establish
a new and reasonable standard for elephants in captivity by pooling resources
and creating facilities that will truly benefit elephants rather than zoo
visitors. Such facilities would provide elephants with vast acres to roam, a
warm climate, a natural habitat, fresh forage, large social groups, and rivers
and ponds to bathe in. That is the life that most elephants in zoos were stolen
from, that is denied to them all, and that they all deserve.
Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights? Read more.