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Get Elephants Out of Zoos

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 Many zoos still use cruel and outdated circus-style training—beating elephants with bullhooks and keeping them chained for long hours.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.

Pitiful Standards

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.

Expanding Elephant Exhibits

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 exhibits.

Zoos Breed for Greed

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 year.


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.”

Elephant-Free Zoos

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.

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