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one green planet

For 20 years, In Defense of Animals has published its list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, revealing the many ways elephants suffer in zoos. The 2022 list tackles the most ignored elephant in the room. No matter how much money is spent on expanding elephant exhibits, a few added acres don’t add up to any real improvement for elephants. And yet zoos promise that their $10-$58 million dollar “Tembo Camp” or “Elephant Lands” is the answer to the biggest problem zoos face for elephants: lack of sufficient space. A new scientific report chronicles the many reasons why elephants need vast space. Without it, they suffer and die at alarmingly early ages.

Science Spells it Out, Elephants Do NOT Belong in Zoos

Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay examine the problem of space for elephants in zoos in their illuminating report “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”. One of their findings is that Elephants evolved to live in spaces 1,000 to a million times bigger than even a large zoo enclosure of 10 hectares (24.7 acres).”

When you consider that zoo exhibits are far less than 24.7 acres, often even less than 3 acres, it is disturbing to think of how diminished and deprived their lives are in these tiny zoo enclosures. The report states that it takes an elephant one minute to traverse 2.47 acres. A study of elephant brains revealed that elephants suffer brain damage from living in such confined and inadequate spaces. 

Elephants have been programmed for thousands of years to walk for miles, to search for food and water, to explore their environment with its rich diversity of plant life and to socialize with friends from afar. Zoos often say elephants don’t have to search for food because the zoo provides 3 meals a day. However, that ignores the very real need of elephants to move their bodies and to exercise their minds with the stimulation that only a savannah or forest can provide. In zoos, elephants are often seen hugging the fence line looking out into the lush landscaping that is provided for zoo visitors, but not available to them. 

The Many Deprivations of Life in Captivity

How do elephants suffer from living in these barren small spaces? How would sufficient, quality space improve their welfare?

  1. At least 50 percent of elephants exhibit stereotypical behavior known as zoochosis in zoos. They rock, sway, bob their heads and pace. This is well-known by elephant experts as a coping mechanism to relieve the stress and boredom of captivity. This repetitive behavior damages their bodies and minds. 
  2. You often see elephants in zoos standing in place, hugging the fence line of the exhibit or restlessly moving from feeder to feeder in search of food. 
  3. Male aggression is exacerbated during musth, a reproductive period. In a zoo, there is nowhere to go and no way to vent their pent up aggression. And if males are allowed to inhabit the same space as the females, the females are vulnerable to being injured by the males.
  4. Cramped spaces prohibit elephants from escaping being bullied by other elephants. Chendra at the Oregon Zoo was repeatedly injured by interactions with other elephants and In Defense of Animals documented an elephant at the Cincinnati Zoo being shoved and pulled by her tail by one of the three other elephants sharing a tiny indoor area. 
  5. Elephants in zoos get little exercise, so they can become obese. Standing around on hard packed sand or dirt causes arthritis and foot disease which is a major mortality risk to elephants in zoos.
  6. Elephant brain function is negatively impacted from living in sub-optimal space. 
  7. When elephants have access to vast quantities of quality space, with varied terrain and vegetation, their welfare increases in a variety of ways. Most importantly it gives them autonomy with the ability to make decisions and have control over their own environment — a fundamental need for such complex animals as elephants.
  8. Enough quality space allows elephants full expression of natural, individual and social behaviors.
  9. With sufficient space, elephants can hide from any unwanted contact with other elephants. They can choose who they want to interact with — and who they don’t.
  10. Space also sustains the environment, by allowing the regeneration and growth of plants and trees, which provide the nourishment that elephants require.

These Bold Simple Steps Provide The Solution

In Defense of Animals proposes solutions and a way forward for zoos with elephants. Number one is to halt all breeding plans that only create more distressed elephants living out their lives in captivity. Next, stop importing elephants from other zoos or the wild. Retire the elephants to accredited sanctuaries and finally pledge to close their elephant exhibits as 33 zoos have already done.

Many people, especially in the younger generations, have reported that they are refusing to go to zoos. We encourage everyone who reads this article and cares about elephants to do the same and boycott zoos with elephants in particular, share the latest 10 Worst Zoos list on social media, with family and friends, and write letters to the editor. In addition, please sign our action alerts for Chendra at Oregon Zoo, and the Fort Worth Zoo elephants. The more awareness we spread about the sad plight of zoo elephants, the closer we get to achieving their freedom.

A Promising Innovation, Virtual Reality Exhibits

 Zoos have the option to entice more young visitors by developing virtual reality exhibits, such as the Milwaukee Zoo’s Gorilla Trek and the North Carolina Zoo’s Expedition Africa Safari. Those zoos sadly still house elephants, but their virtual exhibits point the way to a more compassionate future for elephants and all captive wild animals. 

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