Elephants and humans may not look the same or speak the same language, but we are similar in ways that many people don’t realize. They share loving bonds between herd members and much like a human family, everyone helps the new mother when a baby is born, and they grieve when they lose a family member.

In spite of that, elephants have suffered greatly at the hands of humans, poached for their ivory, forced out of their homes due to habitat destruction, sold into the logging and trekking industries, and of course, forced to live in zoos and on the road in circuses.


Every year, In Defense of Animals ranks the top ten worst zoos for elephants, which exposes the suffering of these highly intelligent, emotional creatures that are all too often exploited by humans for profit. According to Dr. Marilyn Kroplick, president of the organization, “2016 was a shocking year for zoo elephant suffering. In our zoos, elephants’ rights are violated, they are stripped of their dignity, and submitted to disgusting abuses. We owe it to elephants to stop exploiting them. It is time to shut down archaic and barbaric zoo exhibits, and retire elephants to sanctuaries where they can live in peace.”

Here are what In Defense of Animals named as the top three worst zoos for elephants in 2016.

1. Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma


You might not remember the name of the zoo, but all elephant lovers will remember the death of Chai, an Asian elephant who passed away at this very zoo in early 2016. Chai and one other elephant named Bamboo were transferred to Oklahoma City Zoo from Woodland Park Zoo in Washington state. This happened in spite of public outcry that the two elephants, who had experienced multiple health conditions due to being held in captivity, should be sent to a sanctuary instead. After moving from chilly Seattle to an even colder climate in Oklahoma, Chai’s already poor health began to quickly deteriorate. She lost 1,000 pounds and it was reported that this 37-year-elephant, who should have been in “the prime of her life,” according to Lisa Kane, was found collapsed on the floor three times in one week. On a couple of occasions, she needed to be hoisted up in a harness, as seen above.


Chai also suffered from a bacterial infection in her bloodstream, which was tied to 25 untreated abscesses as well as a multitude of health issues stemming from her previous captivity on Woodland Park Zoo. Meanwhile, Bamboo is forced to live in either solitary confinement or the company of aggressive elephants, which has sadly led to her getting two inches of her tail bitten off. Unfortunately, the zoo denied any responsibility in Chai’s untimely death and claims that Bamboo is doing “great”— a story that is all too familiar for animals in captivity. This is the third time that Oklahoma City Zoo has been included on this list.

2. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia


At Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia, you can pay to see primates in filthy cages, take photos with tiger cubs who were torn from their mothers shortly after birth, and ride Asha, a 33-year-old Asian elephant who is called a “pet” by owners Karl and Debbie Mogensen. Even on the hottest summer days, Asha is forced to give rides to paying customers and is kept isolated from other elephants and forced to live in a barn during winter. In addition to that, Natural Bridge Zoo uses bullhooks – which have been outlawed in the state of California and will be illegal in the city of Richmond starting in 2018 – to control Asha

The Humane Society of the United States carried out an undercover investigation in 2014, revealing multiple instances of improper care, including filthy cages, inadequate veterinary care for sick and injured animals, improper handling of animals leading to stress, and lack of clean drinking water. In August of 2016, another investigation revealed that Asha was being mistreated by her keepers and In Defense of Animals points out that since 2015, the USDA has visited this roadside atrocity five times, finding 62 Animal Welfare Act violations. Unfortunately, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries could only temporarily suspend the zoo’s permit, and they soon opened their doors again, much to the dismay of animal lovers everywhere. This is also the third year in a row that the Natural Bridge Zoo has been included in In Defense of Animal’s List of the 10 worst zoos for elephants.


3. Honolulu Zoo, Hawaii


Vaigai and Mari, Honolulu Zoo’s two resident female Indian elephants, were abducted from their homes in the wild at a very young age so that the zoo could make money from ticket sales. In the past six years, this atrocious zoo has seen five directors quit and has had its accreditation withdrawn by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2016. In spite of spending $12 million in 2011 in order to expand the elephant exhibit, living conditions for Vaigai and Mari has not improved. According to In Defense of Animals, living quarters for the pair provides too little shade in the hot Hawaiian sun, has little to no enrichment (in fact, the two were once found playing with a car battery they had dug up), unclean and brackish (salty) water, and unsafe rocks that could easily injure their feet. In addition to that, the zoo has its elephant keepers brandish bullhooks in order to control the two through fear and pain. This is the fourth time that Honolulu Zoo has been included on this list.


Also included on In Defense of Animal’s list of shame were the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Alberta, Canada, Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon, Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York, Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon, Pittsburgh Zoo in Pennsylvania, Milwaukee County Zoo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas. You can read the full list on In Defense of Animals.

Hopefully one day, we’ll be able to see a day where animals are not exploited for the sake of human entertainment. But in order for that to happen, we need to take a stand for elephants now. Doing that is simple; vow to never attend any venue that puts animals on display for profit and entertainment. These places include zoos, roadside exhibitions, places that advertise elephant rides, and circuses. By voting with your feet and dollar, you are sending the message that you do not support these practices.

All image source: In Defense of Animals