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The word slender doesn’t exactly come to mind when we think of elephants, but like most animals, their natural active lifestyle keeps them at a healthy weight. In the wild, they travel up to 30 miles a day with their families, play and bathe in rivers. Many of us have never observed elephants in person outside of zoos and circuses, and it’s clear those environments can’t Support the animals’ instincts to herd and explore. Like humans who choose to live a sedentary life instead of walking or playing sports, elephants in captivity are becoming obese, but sadly, they have no choice in the matter.

According to Daniella Chusyd, M.A., a doctoral student in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Nutrition Sciences, “Obesity affects about 40 percent of African elephants in captivity… Much as we see in humans, excess fat in elephants contributes to the development of heart disease, arthritis, a shorter lifespan and infertility.”

For organizations like zoos, which aim to protect endangered species and increase their populations, this is a troubling truth. A 2011 report from scientists at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo found that elephants in U.S. zoos need to birth an average of six calves a year to maintain a stable population, but they average only half of that.

Elephants in the wild are threatened by poachers hoping to cash in on their ivory tusks, but captive elephants don’t fare much better. Cramped conditions and hard floors cause arthritis and issues with their feet and joints. Psychological distress from by the absence of exercise and companionship leads captive elephants to exhibit abnormal, repetitive behaviors like head bobbing. Some zoos still use negative reinforcement training, like prodding animals with painful bullhooks. This practice aggravates elephants and led to 31 zookeeper injuries and deaths since 1990.

There is a compromise. Elephant sanctuaries keep the animals away from poachers while giving them the space, resources and social contact they need to be happy and lead their natural healthy and active lives. It’s much more fun to watch elephants playing naturally than standing around in a small zoo enclosure, and sanctuary life gives observers an accurate picture of true elephant behavior.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons