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Elephants In Zoos Don't Do Well

A recent report shows elephants in American zoos are truly dying out.

A two-part report published in The Seattle Times by Michael Berens on the fate of elephants in American zoos shows they are dying out and that infant mortality for elephants in zoos is almost three times the rate in the wild. There is a heart wrenching video and an excellent summary of this groundbreaking and significant report here

In the first of the two fact filled essays called "Elephants are dying out in America's zoos", we learn some of the depressing facts about the lives of these magnificent mammoths, money-making "glamour beasts", who are forced to endure life sentences in captivity. For example, of the 22 offspring born to Thonglaw and Packy, only six are still alive. Furthermore, "the decades-long effort by zoos to preserve and protect elephants is failing, exacerbated by substandard conditions and denial of mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity ..."

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Here are some facts uncovered in this seminal report.

Of the 321 elephant deaths for which The Times had complete records, half were by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.

For every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die. At that rate, the 288 elephants inside 78 U.S. zoos could be "demographically extinct" within the next 50 years because there'll be too few fertile females left to breed, according to zoo-industry research.

In the baby race set off by Packy's birth, zoos in the 1960s and 1970s recklessly bred father with daughter, brother with sister, practices since abandoned. The tainted bloodlines of these offspring still impair efforts to safely breed today.

In addition, individuals are moved around as if they're mere objects like furniture for purposes of breeding and producing more elephants who will have miserable and significantly shorter lives in captivity all in the name of money, and not in any way helping the individuals themselves or other members of their species.

And, "of 27 artificial-insemination pregnancies since 1999, eight resulted in miscarriages or stillborn deaths ... An additional six calves died from disease, including from the herpes virus."

"For every elephant born in a U.S. zoo, on average two others die"

In the second essay called "Elephant havens face zoo-industry backlash" Berens writes about how zoos resist attempts to move elephants to sanctuaries where they can live out their lives in safety, peace, and with dignity because these safe havens refuse to breed more animals who will be condemned to life sentences in captivity. And, here is a rather disturbing fact: "For every elephant born in a U.S. zoo, on average two others die, a Seattle Times analysis has found. Under current conditions, with just 288 elephants inside 78 accredited U.S. zoos, they could be 'demographically extinct' within 50 years, studies show."

Furthermore, around 40% of captive elephants display stereotyped behavior that is not observed in their wild relatives according to elephant experts.

I call your attention to these excellent essays because the facts speak for themselves. Elephants do not belong in zoos and we should work very hard to get them all placed in safe homes where they have the very best lives possible. Clearly, this is not possible in zoos. Indeed, in July 2012 a judge in Los Angeles concluded that elephants in the Los Angeles Zoo aren't happy or content and "ordered zookeepers to exercise elephants at least two hours a day and to routinely till dirt surfaces to lessen potential damage to elephants' feet and joints. He banned the use of disciplinary and training tools such as electric-shock rods and bullhooks."

For more on how zoos fail to live up to their claims about education and conservation please see and. And, there is now evidence that zoos sell elephants to entertainment companies.

We must continue to be optimistic that as time passes more and more people, including those who make decisions that really make a difference for the lives of individuals who are held in captivity, will see zoos for what they really are, and that the animals who are kept in these facilities will someday be able to live out their lives absent abuse during which their hearts and spirits are broken and their very lives severely compromised all for human entertainment and money.  

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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