Let's be clear: Captivity in zoos is not conservation for elephants
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


IDA In Defense of Animals / Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants
January 2018

Most zoos are trying to cling to respectability by misleading the public with conservation lies.

zoo elephants

2017 was a landmark year of progress for captive elephants in North America. The infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus called it quits, Illinois and New York State passed prohibitions on the use of elephants for entertainment, and New York City banned the use of all wild animals in circuses. In the U.S. and Canada, more than 100 jurisdictions now have partial or full bans on wild animals used in performances. At least 44 zoos around the world have closed their elephant exhibitions, including 29 in the U.S. And now, the first ever lawsuit on behalf of captive elephants has been filed, arguing for their legal personhood. Globally, over 40 countries have legislated against the use of wild animals in circuses and similar forms of entertainment.

Perceptions about elephants, and the times, are truly changing. But while public awareness of the cruelty of exhibiting elephants for entertainment is increasing, elephants in zoos are suffering under the radar. Most zoos are trying to cling to respectability by misleading the public with conservation lies. Zoo tickets fund a conservation con.

Now in its 14th year, In Defense of Animals produces the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America List to expose how elephants suffer silently in captivity, even when confined in pricey exhibits. Elephants live longer in the wild than in captivity, even when droughts and poaching are taken into account. Despite the provision of veterinary treatment, food and water, elephants in zoos are still not thriving. Michael Berens published a report in The Seattle Times on December 4, 2012 with its findings on an analysis of 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the previous 50 years. Of the 321 deaths in captivity for which records were available, half the elephants were dead by age 23, about a third of their expected life span of 65 to 70 years. It found that “most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity...” A 2008 study by Ros Clubb et al. in Science, entitled, Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants, supports Berens' findings. For elephants, captivity kills.

Elephants do not reproduce well in captivity either; they die faster than they can be born. This losing formula sends zoos to the wild to steal juveniles which traumatizes and kills individuals, destroys families and cultures, and fractures multi-generational elephant lineages and their ecosystems. In 2017, the violent nature of elephant capture for zoos was finally revealed to the public with brutal footage of babies ripped from their family herd in Zimbabwe and beaten before being sent to zoos in China. U.S. zoos are also involved in this sordid business, with no fewer than 18 wild elephants kidnapped from the wild in Swaziland to eventually stock three U.S. zoos in 2015.

WATCH IDA's 2017 Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America on YouTube

This year's list features zoos with some of the world's most expensive elephant exhibits and exposes how inadequate they are in meeting the complex needs of elephants at these glorified playgrounds for paying visitors and donors. Tragically, this list features several zoos that deprive elephants of their most essential psychological need: the presence of other elephants with whom they are compatible. Some of the loneliest elephants in the world can be found in North American zoos.

The zoological industry is trying to distort the public's definition of “elephant herds” by implying that captive elephant “collections” in North America can still be called herds. It is misleading and dangerous to fabricate elephant societies with groups of mostly unrelated individuals who are deprived of their real families, choices, cultures, and ecosystems.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on elephant zoo exhibits in the U.S., yet these funds are desperately needed to avert the extinction of elephants in the wild. Where they still exist, elephants are facing severe threats from ivory poaching, human encroachment, and collections by zoos. The wild is the only place where true conservation of elephant families, their habitats, and their rich cultures can take place. We invite zoos that are sincerely concerned about elephant conservation to close their elephant exhibits and put their money where elephants need it most… in the wild.

How Does In Defense of Animals Determine which Zoos Make the List?

While all zoos confining elephants for public display in the U.S. and Canada are considered, In Defense of Animals focuses on a number of factors to narrow down the list. We assess facilities in-person, through review of government and veterinary records, death reports, consultation with elephant scientists and other experts, and via image and data documentation. Priority is given to notable events occurring in the prior year, such as premature elephant deaths or overt violations of the Animal Welfare Act and egregious disregard for the social and medical needs of elephants.

Other factors include health problems, unsuitable enclosures, cold climates, reckless breeding, unhealthy elephant behaviors, brutal management procedures, and inappropriate social challenges ranging from incompatibility between elephants to naturally social elephants being kept in crushing solitary confinement.

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