Elephants in Zoos

Keeping elephants in zoos is one of the most controversial topics among zookeepers, zoo goers, conservationists and animal activists.

On the one hand, without zoos it would be nearly impossible for the vast majority of people to see a live elephant, making it less likely people will feel strongly about elephant conservation. Zoos also contribute funding and research towards a better understanding of wild elephant populations, and captive elephants do serve as a nice “back-up” for the wild population should something go terribly wrong (which does occasionally happen). But on the other hand, a zoo is almost always an awful place for an elephant. There’s usually not nearly enough space for an elephant to move around comfortably, they don’t have natural environments and can feel caged, there isn’t enough mental or physical stimulation to keep an elephant happy, and the climate can be all wrong.

So where’s the middle ground?

Elephants are one of the most intelligent, emotional and social animals on the planet. They recognize themselves in mirrors (something your dog doesn’t do), mourn their dead, and will go to extreme lengths to protect their families. They also have insane physical characteristics and demands, such as the need for space to roam (they are the largest land animals, after all), soft ground for sensitive toes, and activities to keep their minds busy. Because of this, they require an extraordinary amount of resources to be happily, safely and properly kept in a zoo.

In a perfect world zoos will not be necessary for conservation. Elephants and people will be able to live side by side, each getting the space and resources they need to thrive. Since we so clearly do not live in a perfect world, the best alternative is for zoos to act more like sanctuaries for animals, breeding endangered species, contributing to the conservation success of wild populations, and housing their animals in truly natural environments. Of course, this would mean many zoos would be limited by what animals they can keep. Space and environment are huge factors in zoos, and many zoos just aren’t equipped to safely and effectively house elephants.

Unfortunately zoos are often placed in a very bad position: zoos do need to make money in order to do the work they originally set out to do, and elephants are giant money makers. If a zoo doesn’t have an elephant it’s not considered a real zoo. But this usually means forcing an elephant to live in highly undesirable circumstances which can include a solitary life, a life in a cramped cement cage, a life performing tricks for an audience, and life in a harsh climate or a mostly indoor life.

There’s one other aspect of elephants in zoos that is common practice, perfectly legal and absolutely horrifying: bull hooks. The majority of zoos practice what’s called “free contact” which allows the keepers to move among the elephants, performing various tasks and freely touching and handling the elephants. Although this looks super cool there’s no way to do this safely (remember, elephants weigh 8 to 12 thousand pounds), which is why bull hooks and electrical prods are used to keep these giants in check. A bull hook is a terrifying torture device, a gaff with a large and very sharp hook at the end, and elephants are taught early on that those hooks hurt. The hooks are used in training to get elephants to do tasks as varied as presenting body parts for medical examination to performing circus tricks. Elephants are sometimes known to throw their weight around or occasionally challenge their standing, and there’s nothing that a person can do to keep from getting stomped by an elephant. Keepers are killed very regularly as a result of free contact and each time it’s an outcry. The “rogue” elephant is often killed as punishment. More zoos should (and are) changing to “protected contact” which keeps a barrier between the elephant and the keeper at all times, setting a respectable relationship between them. Protected contact works on the premise that elephants are allowed to do what they want and participate with keeper requests only when they want to, but they’re rewarded when they do, and as a result elephants are happier and keepers are alive.

Thankfully, more and more zoos are creating natural environments for their elephants, including using protected contact, which is addressing that there’s a problem, though it doesn’t do much more than put a band-aid on it. The AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) will now require protected contact for all zoo elephant (after a 3 year period to allow zoos to train staff and redesign their elephant enclosures) in order for zoos to keep their accreditation. Hopefully soon we’ll see the day when all elephants have the expert care they need and aren’t forced to live the sad, caged lives they’ve so far been captive to.

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