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Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo recently announcedthat its 45-year-old African elephant, Watato, had been euthanized after she was found lying in the elephant yard and unable to stand. While euthanasia might seem like the kindest option for an elephant who can no longer walk, it’s important to dig a little deeper.

In the wild, the average lifespan of an elephant is up to 70 years, but many live beyond that. So, what  caused this 45-year-old elephant to suddenly become so unwell? Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants believe that her condition was brought on by her living space, or lack thereof. She shared just one acre divided into five pens with two other elephants, Bamboo and Chai – not to mention the fact that Watato and Bamboo were incompatible – meaning they had to be kept separated and as a result never had full access to the entire area.

An elephant roaming free in the wild will walk up to 30 miles in a day making a fraction of an acre cruel confinement. Unsurprisingly, an elephant so severely confined is likely to develop captivity-related diseases. Watato was no exception. She suffered from arthritis, lameness and “neurotic repetitive behaviors – outward signs of trauma, stress and boredom.” Is it any wonder why she collapsed?

Unfortunately, Watato’s story is not unique. Her situation is indicative of a much larger problem. The fact is, elephants do not belong in captivity.

Lifespan in Captivity vs. Wild

As mentioned before, wild African elephants live anywhere between 60 and 70 years of age. According to the National Geographic, the median lifespan of a zoo-born female is just 17 years with Asian elephants living up to 19 years in captivity and 42 in the wild.

In order to keep these elephants living longer, experts suggest “routine screening for obesity … as well as monitoring stress via a chemical known as interleukin-6.”

For animals who would ordinarily spend much of their day moving and exercising, it’s no wonder captive elephants are prone to obesity. To keep them living longer, we shouldn’t we just allow them to remain in the wild, rather than keep them in captivity.

Family Structure and Social Interactions

Elephants live in herds of anywhere from 8 to 100 individuals with the head of the herd being the oldest female. Baby elephants stay by their mother’s side for up to 15 years, but they are reared and protected by the entire heard. Males leave the family unit around this time and will either live solitarily or temporarily with other male elephants.

Defenders of Wildlife states, “Recent discoveries have shown that elephants can communicate over long distances by producing a sub-sonic rumble that can travel over the ground faster than sound through air.”

With such complex communication and tight-knit family structures, it’s rather shocking to imagine an elephant like Watato living with just two other elephants, one with whom she didn’t even get along. That sounds like a lonely and isolating existence.

Mental and Physical Stimulation 

Because of the lack of space, elephants in zoos aren’t able to get the amount of mental or physical stimulation they require. Nature provides elephants with all they need for healthy lives.

Having a variety of ground surfaces, “including clean dirt, mulch, sand and, probably most importantly, grassy areas and pasture, as well as slopes, hills, gullies, scrub and forest” is essential for getting enough exercise and mental stimulation. Captive elephants require at least 10 km of space and the opportunity to engage in natural elephant behaviors such as foraging, exploring and socializing are vital to their wellbeing.

Elephants who are denied these basic needs develop diseases, just as Watato, Bamboo and Chai have. Aside from obesity, Elephants in Canada states that common ailments captive elephants face include arthritis, foot infections – the leading cause of death, reproductive problems (such as low fertility, high rate of stillbirths and difficulty giving birth), difficulty raising young, psychological disorders, early mortality and engagement in abnormal behaviors such as killing young and aggression towards other elephants.

What We’ve Learned From Watato, and How You Can Help Others

Elephants like Watato, Bamboo and Chai have needs that humans generally aren’t able (or willing) to provide. Sanctuaries do a wonderful job taking in captive, retired elephants, but there is simply no denying that these elephants should never have been in captivity in the first place. Watato’s passing is a reminder of this for us all.

For those of you who would like to protect Bamboo and Chai from the same fate, please write to Seattle’s Mayor and City Council to order the zoo to release them to a sanctuary. You can find contact information at the bottom of this page.

Image source: Benoit Dupont/Flickr

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0 comments on “Why Elephants Don’t Belong in Zoos!”

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6 Months Ago

wild animals belong in a wild, how can people claim the ownership of any wild animal? And why people get excited by patting exotic animal or posing for a photo? How can animal in cage on in chains be a tourist attraction???????

Catherine Sherman
6 Months Ago

Dear Mayor and Others Concerned,

The plight of captive elephants worldwide continues to be in a downward spiral unless we do something NOW.
It is SO evident that Woodland Park Zoo has always been in this for the money and not out of concern for
the elephants well-being. Educational opportunities aside, the PROPER home for any elephant is NOT IN A ZOO,
but in the wild or by TRANSFERRING ALL INTERNED ELEPHANTS TO A SANCTUARY..................
Thank You,
A concerned citizen.

6 Months Ago

Basically, the poor elephant was bored paralytic....It\'s the same as keeping an Orca in a tank. Pathetic !

Ann Keegan Snow
6 Months Ago

The fact that this happened at the Seattle Zoo is hard to grasp, with Seattle\'s educated, moneyed elite sitting back and allowing this sort of abuse to go on under their noses when someone could have stood up and done something LONG AGO!. The knowledge referred to in this article is well known; why wasn\'t something done sooner? If you can\'t provide the kind of environment an animal needs, then find a zoo which can. SHAME ON YOU, SEATTLE!

6 Months Ago

It sounds to me (not an expert by any means) that the zoo\'s elephant exhibit contributed to the problem. More so than the elephant not being "in the wild".

Ray Jender
6 Months Ago

Well, whats better, getting well feed while behind bars or being slaughtered for Ivory?

29 Aug 2014

That\'s not an alternative. All countries must unite to stop the poaching with everything available offense it can muster. And Asia and other countries must end the trade in ivory and horn. But to say zoos are an alternative to freedom is ridiculous. There is a saying: Live free or die. I would expect you\'d agree.

Janice Schmidt
6 Months Ago

As sad as it would be to never be able to see an elephant at a zoo.....................they don\'t belong there.........they should be in the wild..........how would you like to be torn away and stuck in a cage????? No, the kind thing, the right thing to do is to leave them where they are in their natural habitat.

Ed Smith
30 Aug 2014

Make a law of which Elephants have a large habitat, twenty acres per elephant with trees and water, or larger.

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