Just this week it's been announced that "Denver zoo-goers will soon have another pachyderm heartthrob" named Billy." Billy, the first Asian elephant imported to the United States in more than three decades, is quite the traveler, having been born in Dublin, Ireland, and now residing and being trained at the Antwerp Zoo in Belgium, where he's called Budi. Billy was moved because "he wore out his welcome with his family unit."
Billy is being brought to Denver to be a breeding machine to make more Asian elephants who will surely live out their lives in captivity. He will be housed in the $50 million Toyota Elephant Passage at the zoo with other elephant sperm donors. The passage is really just a big cage that can't possibly meet the social and physical needs of its occupants, and was built despite the fact that other major zoos were phasing out their elephant exhibits because they could not meet the social, emotional and physical needs of these awesome mammoths (see "Thick skins, tender hearts and broken spirits").
Elephants have thick skins but tender hearts and we're driving them crazy by keeping them in captivity and shipping them here and there
The cage in which Billy will live with other elephants can hold as many as eight bulls and twelve elephants. While this peripatetic lifestyle for sex might sound romantic and "neat", this is a most unusual way for an Asian elephant to live. And, it's well documented that captive Asian elephants, despite being pampered, live far shorter lives than wild relatives. Redecorating zoos with any animals raises serious ethical questions. In order to maintain the new elephant enclosure, individuals will be shipped in and out, and friendships, and strong and enduring social bonds, will be broken repeatedly. Elephants are highly emotional, sentient beings and they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological flashbacks. They grieve, often irreversibly, when life-long friendships are broken. Elephants have thick skins, but tender hearts, and their spirit can be easily broken.
Past problems with elephant shuffle at the Denver Zoo
A essay by Charles Siebert published in the New York Times in 2006 called "An elephant crackup?" concluded we're driving elephants crazy by keeping them in captivity and by shipping them here and there as if they're pieces of furniture. Let's consider some of the problems that have occurred at the Denver Zoo. In spring 2001, Asian elephants were regularly moved in and out of the Denver Zoo as if they were couches being moved from room to room. Rocky Mountain Animal Defense (RMAD) and I got involved because of the lack of concern of the Denver Zoo and the AZA. Dolly, a 32-year-old female, was removed from her friends, Mimi and Candy, and sent to Missouri on her "honeymoon," as the zoo called it, to breed. A few months later, Hope, a mature female, and Amigo, a 2½-year-old male (who had been taken from his mother), were sent to the Denver Zoo, where they lived next door to Mimi and Candy.
In the following months, Mimi got increasingly agitated. In June 2001, Mimi pushed Candy over, she couldn't get up, and had to be euthanized (the zoo didn't have a proper elephant hoist). Two days after Candy died, and a day after she was autopsied within smelling distance of the other elephants, Hope got angry, escaped from her keepers and rampaged through the zoo. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. Hope was then transferred out of the zoo, and a new elephant, Rosie, was brought in. Clearly, when elephants are moved in and out of groups, their social order is severely disrupted and individuals get very upset. I've seen this first hand among wild elephants in Kenya and, not surprisingly, this is what happened at the Denver Zoo. And it could happen again. Playing "musical chairs" with animals who have no choice is serious business and can have dire consequences.
Billy is "brand-new genetic material" who will live in an "elephant mill"
Consider some of the words below used to refer to Billy by people who work at the zoo, words that objectify him and pay no attention at all that Billy, a sentient and highly emotional elephant being, is being used to make more elephants and perhaps doesn't like the travel, being introduced to new elephants and people, and being made to breed. And, if he wears out his welcome with the elephants in Denver and doesn't quite perform as the sperm machine stud he needs to be, he'll likely be shipped out once again to who knows where. Zoos are breeding mills and make a lot of money trying to live up to this reputation.
Some revealing quotes from zoo administrators:
"We've heard he's a very charismatic boy. Our guests will love him," the zoo's vice president for animal care Brian Aucone said.
"It's been a long time in the making. He's brand-new genetic material, " said assistant curator Becca McCloskey. "Only a handful of U.S. zoos have the capacity to house (several bull elephants)."
"Billy's very, very smart. He's very active. He's going to be fun to watch," McCloskey said. "We're very excited about him."
As if the travel and the shuffling isn't enough, there's no guarantee Billy will be accepted in Denver. To wit, "After Billy arrives in Denver, he must complete a quarantine period of at least 30 days. Then, if healthy, Billy can inhabit the 10-acre exhibit along with longtime Denver pachyderm sweetheart Dolly, about 49, and the zoo's other recently acquired bull elephants, the big guy, Groucho, estimated to be 43, from Fort Worth, Texas, and the irrepressible Bodhi, 9, from Columbus, Ohio." (my emphasis) Billy's potential new friends have also been shipped around as if they're unfeeling objects. And, "Once trainers get a feel for Billy's personality, they'll know the extent to which he can interact with others."
Zoothanasia is not euthanasia
You'd think that Billy's state of health and personality would be assessed before he was brought to Denver, after all, it's already known he didn't get on with the other elephants in Dublin. And, if he isn't healthy or can't get along with the others, then what may happen to him? He may be forced to live alone, be shuffled around at the Denver Zoo, be moved to another zoo, or perhaps if nothing works out he'll be "put to sleep" if no one is able to take him in. I realize that killing Billy is not a likely option right now, but animals are indeed killed when they don't figure into a zoo's breeding program (see for example, the New York Times essay "When Babies Don’t Fit Plan, Question for Zoos Is, Now What?").
In an earlier essay I wrote, "Killing animals in zoos because they don't 'figure into breeding plans' is not euthanasia, it's "zoothanasia", and is a most disturbing and inhumane practice." Using the word "euthanasia", mercy killing to end an individual's pain and suffering, sanitizes the killing at least for some people and makes it more acceptable. While one might argue that many if not all animals in zoos suffer, killing animals who aren't needed isn't mercy killing, it's really a form of premeditated killing.
People who supposedly love animals and want there to be more of them choose to kill them because they're unneeded and there are too many of them. The animals are innocent victims of human arrogance and quite often greed. There's also another phrase thrown around by zoo administrators, "management euthanasia". One former zoo director goes as far as to say, “I am not saying management euthanasia is wrong ... It is just not the best solution.” I thoroughly disagree. There is something very, very wrong with this egregious practice. It should really be called "mismanagement zoothanasia". Zoo administrators should surely be held accountable for reckless and fatal breeding practices.
Redecorating zoos needs to stop right now
Zoos, as long as they exist, must be for the animals who are forced to live there, not for the people who visit or run them. We really need some radical changes now that emphasize how important the life is of every single animal living in captivity.
Phasing out zoos in favor of sanctuaries where individuals can live out their lives with respect and dignity should be the focus of future efforts to enrich and honor the lives of the numerous animals who find themselves languishing in captivity. Allowing animals to be mistreated and then killed as if they're mere objects should not be tolerated and each of us must work to end this egregious practice. The compassionate conservation movement (see also and) is one such move in the right direction because of its focus on the well-being of individual animals.
Billy's story deeply disturbs me, as he will surely live out the rest of his shorter life when compared to wild elephants in a cage somewhere that can handle him. Of course, he and the other breeding bulls will never see wild environs and neither will his or other elephant's offspring because placing these animals in the wild, something that hasn't been done to date, is a daunting task. Billy and far too many other individuals are abused for the supposed good of their species with no say in the matter and with little to no return. Zoos should continue to phase out their elephant exhibits and send these amazing animals to sanctuaries where they can live out their lives with social and emotional stability and respect and dignity.
Billy, like many other zoo animals, including charismatic captive pandas (see also) and cetaceans (see, for example, the documentary Blackfish and "Tilly's Willy: In the Name of Science?"), is essentially a dispensable moneymaking tool and I wish him well. These captive animals are hardly "ambassadors" for their species although they're represented and cashed out as if they are. We surely do not need any more captive baby elephants just like we don't need any more captive baby pandas.
I also hope that the heartless practice of zoos playing "musical cages" and "animal shuffle" with sentient and emotional beings will be rapidly brought to an end because there are serious consequences for the animals who find themselves hapless pawns in the breeding games in which zoos engage.