Is captivity a death sentence for elephants?


Petal, the female African elephant, photographed in September 2007.

In September, 2007, my wife and I made one of our semi-annual trips to the Philadelphia Zoo, mostly to see the little Amur tiger cubs. While there I photographed this elephant, Petal, fiddling with a chain in the shade of her all-too-small enclosure that she shared with several other elephants.

At one time, there had been plans for a $20 million project to create a new elephant habitat at the zoo (almost anything would have been an improvement over the dirt yard). In 2005, however, the zoo decided to build a new aviary and children's zoo instead, and officials said they were planning on sending the elephants elsewhere. In 2005 an Asian elephant named Dulary was severely injured by a new, younger African elephant, and the pressure was on to do something about the animals. (Dulary was moved to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.) The exhibit was planned to close in the spring of 2007, but as my visit attests, this did not happen. A sign outside the elephant exhibit promised that the remaining elephants at the zoo would soon be off to a better home (wherever that may be), and I expected that the animals would soon be gone.

When I returned to the zoo in July 2008, the elephants were still there, save for Petal. She had died just the month before from heart and lung failure after she fell on her side while sleeping. Captured in Tanzania in 1955, Petal had once known the wild, but she died at 53 in the middle of a city where her habitat consisted of little more than a dusty lot.

According to the Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants, the younger African elephants Kallie and Bette are still in Philadelphia while a breeding facility in Pittsburgh, where they are to be transferred, is still under construction. No one knows when they will be moved, and they still spend most of their time indoors. The zoo has also apparently turned down offers from elephant sanctuaries to transfer the animals immediately at little to no cost.

This is a tragic tale, and becoming more and more common as zoos realize that they cannot properly care for their elephants. Elephants can be long-lived, and many of the animals plucked from the wild have outlived the enclosures that were thought to be "humane" in the 1940's and 1950's. If zoos have enough cash they can significantly improve the quality of life for these intelligent and social animals, but with the economy in its present state, this is not an option for many parks.

According to a brief report published in Science (and an additional summary), however, Petal may have lived much longer than many of her captive relatives. Comparing the lifespans of elephants kept in European zoos with wild elephants from Kenya, the study states that the average lifespan of a captive female African elephant is about 16.9 years, compared to 56 years for wild individuals. (The age-at-death varies for wild elephants, though. Many die at about 56 from natural causes, but if human-caused deaths are included, lifespans drop to about 36 years.)

Even more interesting were the figures for Asian elephants. Captive-born Asian elephant elephants only survived for about 19 years, versus 41.7 years in the wild. Indeed, captive-born animals typically fare much worse than even wild-caught animals that are brought into zoos at about age three. This reflects that the time from birth through infancy is critical for these animals.Separating offspring from mothers and inter-zoo transfers for breeding purposes also appeared to have deleterious effects on elephants, probably doing to mental stress. Elephant social groups are primarily made up of related females and their offspring, and sending an adult female away to another zoo to breed breaks up the bonds developed and throws her into a stressful new situation (which can result in fights and injury, as seen with Dulary).

Some of the leadership at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are not too happy with the new report, though, and have issued some over-the-top responses to it. According to the New York Times, Paul Boyle, senior vice president for conservation and education at the AZA, said the study contained "flagrant" errors and pushed an anti-zoo agenda. He particularly took issue with the notion that zoos were "consumers" of elephants that imported wild-caught individuals, stating that he was unaware of "the last time elephants were imported into the U.S. for a zoo. I cannot speak for other countries, but that is not true of the United States."

Are elephants still being imported to fill zoos, in the U.S. or elsewhere? In an assessment of whether zoos can produce a self-sustaining population of elephants published in the International Zoo Yearbook in 2006, R.J. Wiese and K. Willis stated that the majority of Asian elephants in European and North American zoos were wild-caught animals;

In Europe and North America the majority of Asian elephant Elephas maximus populations are not self-sustaining nor is the African elephant Loxodonta africana population in North America. About 75% of Asian elephants in North America are wild-caught or from semi-wild logging camps and are presumed to be unrelated to the other Asian elephants in captivity.

In another report published in Zoo Biology the same year, Michael Hutchins and Mike Keele reviewed the practical and ethical consequences of importing elephants into zoos. Elephants are difficult to breed in captivity, both due to biology and the poor conditions under which they are often kept, and the pool of female elephants in zoos today is aging. If zoos want to engage in breeding programs, either for a self-sustaining pool of animals or as part of their conservation mission, new animals may have to be imported. While active importation of elephants may have been halted in the recent past (remember, Petal was captured in the 1950's), there is at least some consideration of trying to obtain wild animals as female elephants age and become unable to breed in captivity;

Importation from range countries will likely be necessary if zoo elephant programs are to be sustained. This will be true whether zoos decide to maintain their populations through breeding or to abandon their breeding programs and import ''doomed'' elephants to meet their exhibition and other needs.

If Hutchins & Keele are correct, it will take a lot of effort to re-start elephant breeding programs from wild animals to eventually create a self-sustaining elephant population. The question is, it is ethical to do so? This hinges on a few considerations. First, can husbandry be improved to reduce elephant illness and mortality in captivity? There seem to be very few zoos presently equipped to keep their elephants happy and healthy, and it will be difficult to raise money for larger parks and better enclosures.

The second consideration is whether breeding elephants is truly contributing to the survival of African and Asian elephants in the wild or simply serves to generate money for zoos. It seems that the goal presently is to have a self-sustaining population of zoo elephants so that individuals do not have to be taken from the wild, and revenue generated form visitors seeing the animals may then go back to conservation programs. If this is the case, we can return to question one and ask whether elephants should be kept at zoos at all if they are simply money makers.

As we ponder these questions, elephants are growing old in restless in their outdated enclosures. It might be painful to consider zoos without elephants, but we have reached a point where the ethical ramifications of our actions demand answers.

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What good are zoos anyway? Seriously? If the care of the animals is not the primary concern, what is the point? To employ zookeepers. Don't like the way Elephants are treated? don't go to zoos.

I do not know about American elephants, but in Europe, most are part of breeding programmes where the males rather then the females are traded between zoos.
As a result, there are a few zoos (such as the one in Barcelona) that have an all-male elephant group, whereas most other zoos only have females and at least one visiting male. Usually, such a visit lasts a few months.
That being said, the birth rate is not exactly high and quite probably the zoo population faces the same extinction problem as the one in America.
As for wildcaught elephants, there are a few but most elephants in Europe (at least the ones part of the great network of good, recognised zoos) are captivity-born. I am a regular visitor of Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam and this zoo has but one wildcaught elephant. This female, Duanita, was seized by customs when she was being illegally smuggled into Europe.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park and another zoo in America imported 11 African elephants from Swaziland in 2003. Their original herd was not producing and getting too old, I guess in their eyes. The elephants imported were originally from Kruger and involved in a 1994 culling there. They ended up in Swaziland, whose population in 2003 was only 36 individuals. There was another threat of a cull, which the zoos pushed as a reason to import them. Despite the fact other parks in Africa were willing to take them. The remaining Africans were traded off to another zoo in preparation for the new arrivals. They've died since then. I think Peaches reached the 50+ year mark, but she was in terrible condition.

monson: I believe the point would be to provide a venue that produces a consistent stream of funding to conserve wild populations or ensure the survival of a species. Of course, the care of the animals should be one of the primary concerns, I don't believe it is THE primary concern. At the same time, one really shouldn't have to choose between the two. The St. Louis Zoo, for instance, does quite well at both and all without charging a dime for admittance.

Conservation often becomes a paradox - whether it is more beneficial to deplete the wild population (with already low numbers) for purposes of producing conservation funds, or to give the population a chance to replenish itself.

Monson, I agree with you. There is no purpose to keeping elephants and a number of other animals in zoos. These creatures are too intelligent to be held captive and there is no way zoos can provide them with the amount and variety of habitats they require. Zoo people play the argument that captive animals are supposed to provide a source of genetic diversity in case they go extinct in the wild or the wild numbers drop too low. But it's just another form of "stamp collecting," like the the butterfly collectors of Victorian England. Conserve the animals in the wild, in their natural habitat.

The "conservation argument" has always ringed hollow to me--what, are they actually going to put zoo-bred elephant babies back into the wild? Not likely. This situation sounds much like the beluga breeding programs at aquariums.

I actually had one idea today though. Why not have a group at an elephant sanctuary and rotate a few into the zoo for six months at a time every several years or so? Although I guess transport may be difficult and you wouldn't want to separate ellie friends.