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True Colors

Why zoos really do what they do.

From today's headlines: "Toronto Zoo Loses Accreditation Over Plan to Ship Elephants to Sanctuary.” [1] According to the report, the Toronto city council agreed to send three aged elephants from zoo to the highly regarded sanctuary, Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, California. In response, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) considered the decision a violation of its standards and penalized the Canadian facility by nullifying its standing of accreditation, held since 1977.

From the perspective of elephant welfare, this retaliatory response is startling. Sanctuary is clearly in the best interest of the three African elephants, Thika, Iringa and Toka. Unlike the zoo quarters in frigid, urban Toronto, the western U.S. sanctuary offers a more temperate climate for elephant residents who graze in the desultory peace of California’s gentle gold and green foothills. Covering hundreds of acres, these expansive, natural grounds are a place to heal arthritic joints, cracked feet, and other maladies that accumulate after years of close confinement, concrete, and psychological trauma. Sanctuary guarantees lifetime care with no threat of transfer. Elephants are able to stay in their foreign home and, barring the eventuality of death, remain with their companions for life.

All of this makes an enormous difference to elephant minds and bodies. Modern humans often fail to appreciate the stress that captive elephants endure. For many of us, a transient existence surrounded by concrete and the limited space of apartments, houses, buses, cars, and so forth, is just how we live. But for elephants, it is a prison sentence.

Most elephants in captivity have been kidnapped from their families, often having witnessed the killing of mothers and other relatives. They are then shipped to live alone or with unknown companions for uncertain time. Science has revealed that this incredibly sensitive, conscious, self-aware, highly social, thinking, and feeling being is acutely vulnerable to the trauma of violence, isolation, and artificial living. An elephant’s psychological capacity is comparable, and likely exceeds, that of humans, thereby qualifying for and deserving the same ethical and legal privilege that we demand for ourselves. [2] [3]

Elephants thrive only when they are free among family and community, integral members of the vast floral and faunal communities with whom they have evolved. As renowned elephant healer and founder of Elephant Aid International (EAI) Carol Buckley asserts, sanctuary is still captivity. But in contrast to zoos, sanctuary allows elephants to be elephants in a way they want, in an environment as close to their native habitat as one can make in North America. Notably, sanctuaries only exist to care for those who have been broken in spirit and body from the brutality of the captive trade.

So then, given the obvious improvement in welfare that sanctuary represents, why has the AZA reacted so negatively? The answer is simple. Profit. Elephants are big money for zoos and collaborating research institutions, and zoos can ensure continuing profit by making more elephants via breeding programs. It is these programs that reveal the raw darkness of the captive industry.

AZA openly states that one of its goals is “to establish a sustainable captive elephant herd in North America.” [2] [4] The Pittsburgh Zoo is now involved in an international project, “Project Frozen Dumbo,” an effort to establish North America’s first elephant sperm bank. First, scientists extract semen by masturbating a bull elephant. [5] [6] They then artificially inseminate female elephants. [7] In plain, less euphemistic language, male and female elephants are raped in order to produce more elephants. Chai is one such victim.

Chai is a thirty-two-year-old Asian elephant living in the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle who has been inseminated 59 times. [8] The procedure involves inserting a probe into Chai’s rectum while a four-meter endoscope is inserted into her vaginal opening. [9] The Zoo’s general curator, Dr. Nancy Hawkes maintains that “[a]rtificially inseminating an elephant is a technique that enhances animal welfare.” [10]. According to Hawkes, the last two decades of failed inseminations occurred because “they were usually just inseminating the bladder.” [11] One can only imagine, with horror, Chai’s experience.

Located in the Land of Liberty’s capitol, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo also has a thriving research program dedicated to increasing captive elephant reproduction. Yet another “puzzlement.” Why are million-dollar programs needed to solve the obvious? Female elephants have a difficult time conceiving in captivity for the same reasons that affect women who are similarly subjected to extreme stress and deprivation in concentration camps. It is a basic fact of life that all adult women, even scientists, should appreciate. [12]

Beyond profit, other motives have been suggested to explain the impulse to imprison the pacific pachyderm. Former zookeeper Ray Ryan reflects on his experience of zoos’ “culture of violence” [13]:

It’s hard to describe, but when you eventually get control over someone who has no natural control and is so big, well, it makes you feel big. It is a real display of machismo. . . . You could show you were a real man if you could beat down a big powerful animal. And I could always tell who had had a fight with their wife the morning or night before. We have not changed much since cave days. Men are still beating up women, still trying to run the world with domination. And if you notice, all the elephants we work with are females.

Sadly, despite the AZA’s insistence that zoos exist to help elephants and support their welfare, today’s news speaks otherwise. AZA has shown its true colors. As Ray Ryan poignantly notes about the elephants, “Why don’t we just let them be who they are?”

Photos credits: Karen Ducey, courtesy Hearst Communications, Inc

Literature Cited

[1] Vincent, D.. 2012. Toronto Zoo loses accreditation over plan to ship elephants to sanctuary. The Star.

[2] Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Elephants on the edge: What animals teach us about humanity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[3] Bradshaw, G.A. & A.N. Schore. 2007. How elephants are opening doors: developmental neuroethology, attachment, and social context. Ethology, 113: 426–436.

[4] Interim Hearing on San Diego Zoological Society: The Care and Handling of Animals and Other Management Issues, July 29, 1988, California Legislature, Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildlife, Senator Dan McCorquodale, Chairman, 48–49. Quoted in Bradshaw 2009 ibid

[5] YouTube. 2012. How to masturbate an elephant.

[6] Bradshaw, G.A. 2010. The woeful whale. Psychology Today.

[7] The Economist. 2012. The big freeze: a sperm bank for elephants. March 2012.

[8] Ballard News Tribune. 2011. Zoo artificially inseminates elephant again.

[9] Elephant SSP/TAG Artificial Insemination Information packet.

[10] 2011. Zoo tries again to artificially inseminate elephant Chai.

[11] Paulson, T. 2005. Inseminating elephant takes two Germans, an ultrasound and a very long wait. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

[12] Infanticide is also rampant in captivity, but historically almost non-existent in the wild. Now, however, elephants in South Africa’s are beginning to buckle under humanity’s violence and infanticide has begun to emerge.

[13] Ryan. R. 2009. Quoted in Bradshaw, G.A. 2009. Elephants on the edge: What animals teach us about humanity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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