Elephants have long been recognized as intelligent, perceptive, and sociable creatures.
The National Elephant Center says, “Female elephants are by nature affiliative, meaning they focus their efforts on social interactions. In general, older experienced females called matriarchs lead elephant families. These female-led herds usually consist of adult daughters, their calves, and a number of juvenile and adolescent male and female offspring. Since female elephants are known to remain reproductive throughout most of their lives, calf rearing is heir primary activity beyond eating and drinking.”
Males tend to lead more solitary lives, leaving their families once they reach sexual maturity, and thereafter living alone or coming together in small bachelor groups. In the case of both males and females, captivity severely disrupts their natural instincts and prevents them from living out a natural existence. Below, we profile the stories of four captive elephants – to help develop a greater understanding of their plight — and offer suggestions as to how you can help.
In February 2014, we reported on the heartbreaking story of Tania, a female Indian elephant who has lived alone for most of her 39 years and has been shunted around from zoo to zoo, most recently ending up in the Targu Mures Zoo, Romania. Here, she is confined to a tiny enclosure, deprived of the company of other elephants, and is even forced to stand in her own urine and feces, due to sporadic, unsanitary cleaning practices at the zoo.
Her story of captivity began in 1978, after her herd was wiped out in the wild. Tania was just three years old at the time. She was immediately sold to the Plaisance-du-Touch Zoo in Toulouse, France, and remained there for almost 25 years, before being resold to a series of other zoos across Europe. During her entire time as a captive elephant, Tania has rarely been given an opportunity to bond with another members of her species.
However, the movement to free her is rapidly gaining stream, as evidenced by a recent online petition on The Petition Site. Over 185,000 signatures were garnered before Sue Feist, author of the petition, closed it on February 27, saying that she would now be using it to lobby Janez Potocnik (European Commissioner for the Environment) and Lesley Dickie (executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria).
Another petition has been started – on The Petition Site, as before – by Nancy Janes, administrator of the Free Tania Facebook page. Her petition has garnered nearly 80,000 signatures to date, and is still accepting more, so be sure to sign and share it today!
Mila, a 41-year-old female African elephant, was born in Namibia in 1973. Sadly, she spent very little time with her family before being captured and sold to a zoo in Honolulu, where she was reportedly bullied by other elephants.
At the age of four, she was bought by elephant trainer Tony Ratcliffe and flown to New Zealand to join the Whirling Brothers Circus. Here, she was known as “Jumbo,” and trained to perform tricks and cater to a human audience’s whims using the cruel instrument of a bullhook.
Mila was finally released from the strains of circus life in 2009, after extensive lobbying by New Zealand animal rights group, SAFE. She was then moved to New Zealand’s now-closed Franklin Zoo, where – while still being kept in captivity – she was at least treated with respect, and had the freedom to “build her confidence, and develop stronger muscles and increase her fitness.”
During her time at the zoo, Mila was tragically involved in the death of Helen Schofield, a veterinarian and zoo operator, on April 25, 2012. In honor of Helen’s wish to have Mila reunited with fellow elephants after Franklin Zoo’s closure, staff and supporters raised $1.5 million to have her transported to the San Diego Zoo in November 2013.
After Mila’s arrival, she spent several months in quarantine before being introduced to Mary, the matriarch of San Diego Zoo’s elephant herd. Believe it or not, she was the first elephant Mila had seen in 37 years, and as soon as the two met, they became firm friends. You can watch Mary and Mila’s very moving introduction here, and their first meeting without barriers here.
The story of the fourteen-year-old Indian elephant Sunder is a heartbreaking one, by anyone’s standards. In 2007, he was “donated” to the Jyotiba Temple in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, India by a legislator named Vinay Kore, where he was kept chained and beaten for almost six years.
In 2012, his plight came to the attention of former Beatle and longtime PETA supporter Paul McCartney, who spoke out on his behalf, urging Indian politicians to secure his release. In response, the Maharashtra Forest Department ordered that Sunder be sent to an elephant sanctuary – but it recently emerged that the order had not been implemented, and Sunder has simply been moved to a nearby poultry shed in nearby Waranangar.
Dr. E.K. Easwaran, assistant director of Kerala’s department of animal husbandry, and Dr. Yaduraj Khadpekar, senior veterinary officer with Wildlife SOS India, have claimed that Sunder is “being kept so harshly chained that he’s unable to lie down.” They say he is also displaying all of the classic symptoms of distress in elephants: “constant head wobbling, swaying, and other abnormal repetitive movements.”
PETA is currently campaigning to have Sunder set free. Several leading Bollywood actors, including Arjun Rampal and Gulshan Grover, have demonstrated their support for the campaign. You can also add your voice to the campaign by signing and sharing PETA’s petition.
Lucky, a female Indian elephant born in 1960, spent barely two years in the wild before being captured and shipped to the San Antonio Zoo, where she has remained to this day, in “a truly wretched exhibit”, according to In Defense of Animals (IDA) USA. One of her original companions, a female named Ginny, was euthanized in 2004 after enduring years of painful arthritis. Another San Antonio elephant, a male named Alport, died at the age of 49 in 2007 after being diagnosed with a serious orthopedic injury.
Lucky herself is believed to suffer from a chronic foot complaint – a circumstance that IDA describes as “no surprise, as the San Antonio Zoo elephant display gives Lucky only about one half-acre of barren space on which to move.”
Following Alport’s death, Lucky spent two years on her own, until another female elephant known as Queenie (who had endured years of abuse as a circus elephant) was moved to the zoo. Unfortunately, the two elephants did not get along, and frequently fought with one another. Queenie was later euthanized in March 2013, leaving Lucky alone once again.
IDA is now calling on the San Antonio Zoo to retire Lucky and permanently close its elephant exhibit.
They say: “Queenie’s last few years at the San Antonio Zoo were needlessly tragic and a direct result of the USDA’s inaction and the zoo’s selfish desire to exploit elephants. While it’s unfortunately too late for Queenie, Lucky has a chance for a better future. It’s time for the zoo to put its own interests aside and make the compassionate decision to close its elephant exhibit and retire Lucky to a spacious, natural-habitat environment where she can live her remaining years in the company of other elephants. After 51 years on display at the San Antonio Zoo, Lucky deserves better.”
If you, too, believe that Lucky deserves better, you can respond to IDA’s call to write polite but well-informed emails to Steve McCusker, director of the San Antonio Zoo ([email protected] or [email protected]) and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro ([email protected]). Also make sure you sign and share this petition from Change.org.
Image source: Arran ET / Flickr