The stories of elephants who have been forced to live in captivity are, all too often, riddled with tragedy and neglect. Take the heartbreaking tale of Happy (a hugely inaccurate name for a captive elephant), who has spent over thirty-eight years living in isolation in the Bronx Zoo, or the tragic fate of Malee, a young elephant who died last year in the Oklahoma City Zoo after the zoo went ahead with an ill-advised transfer plan that exposed him to a dangerous disease.
Elephants are, by nature, extremely intelligent, family-oriented animals who can travel up to 30 miles per day. This makes them one of the widest-ranging land mammals on Earth. In the wild, they live in close-knit matriarchal herds, typically headed by the eldest and most experienced female, who leads her daughters and their calves. Adult males live in separate “bachelor” groups. Elephants are renowned for being deeply emotional and perceptive animals who mourn when a loved one dies and know how to distinguish between humans who have harmful intentions and humans who are safe.
In captivity, however, elephants can expect to live in a space that makes up only a fraction of the territory they enjoy in the wild. Foot problems, obesity, and psychological issues are rife among captive elephant populations. As an outward manifestation of their mental distress, elephants in zoos will often display repetitive stereotypic behaviors such as head-bobbing, wobbling from side to side, or restless pacing. Self-mutilation and aggressive behavior are also commonly witnessed among captive elephants.
Sadly, the effects of a life in captivity can often lead elephants to contract certain diseases or infections that are rarely witnessed among their wild counterparts. This was recently the case for Willow, a six-week-old elephant born in Melbourne Zoo who has now passed away after battling a blood-borne infection.Willow had suffered from a variety of health problems throughout her life, arising from complications at birth.
On June 15, she was born with congenital carpal flexure (a condition that prevented her from standing up properly or being able to suckle her mother Num-Oi) and had to have vital nutrients fed to her through a drip. Corrective surgery enabled Willow to stand for short periods of time … but after acquiring a blood-borne infection in mid-July, her strength quickly dwindled.
Despite receiving round-the-clock care from zookeepers, Willow was ultimately unable to fight off the infection.
Willow was put to sleep last week in the company of her grief-stricken mother, together with the zoo’s elephant keepers and veterinary staff. While the zoo carers obviously had great affection for her, comments made by head veterinarian Dr, Michael Lynch are extremely telling of the way in which Willow was ultimately viewed by Melbourne Zoo: as an asset who was brought into the world specifically to bolster the zoo’s reputation as a hub of conservation. “While we felt there was a chance, we put the resources in and the zoo made that commitment,” he
“While we felt there was a chance, we put the resources in and the zoo made that commitment,” he said. “This animal was 22 months in the making in gestation. And before that there was a whole lot of planning. There are not many of these animals in captivity so she was a valuable animal.”
Willow was not the first elephant to die at Melbourne zoo in recent years – her brother Sannok died in 2013, at the age of just eleven months, while playing with a hanging tire in the elephant enclosure. Following Willow’s demise, animal activists are now urging Melbourne Zoo to phase out their keeping of elephant in captivity, pointing out that a captive enclosure can never hope to adequately satisfy these animals’ physical and psychological needs.
“Given the lack of stimulation and exercise and the inbreeding inherent at zoos, the infant-mortality rate for elephants is almost triple the rate in the wild,” said Claire Fryer, campaign coordinator for PETA Australia. “Melbourne Zoo continues to breed these intelligent animals in an effort to churn out more cash cows. Zoos around the world have closed their elephant exhibits or announced plans to phase them out, citing their own inability to meet the significant needs of these animals. It’s time for Melbourne Zoo to do the same.”
To learn more about why a zoo is no place for an elephant, read the articles below and share this post to help raise awareness … so that fewer baby elephants such as Willow will suffer the fate of a short, disease-ridden life in captivity.
- 3 Things Captive Elephants Never Experience
- Why Elephants Don’t Belong in Zoos
- Why Life in a Zoo is No Life for an Elephant
- Seven Simple Things You Can Do to Help Captive Elephants – Right Now!
Image Source: The Age