Plans To Separate Elephant Friends of 30 Years

Elephants may have thick skins but they also have tender hearts

Posted Dec 07, 2011

The ongoing saga of two elephants, Shaba, a 31 year-old African elephant and Connie, a 44 year-old Asian elephant, is especially heartbreaking and raises many questions about why zoos exist and what they actually do versus what they purport to do. Shaba and Connie are now living at the city-owned Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Arizona, and are the closest of friends. They've been together for 30 years. They met when Shaba was 2 years old and Connie was 15. Both were originally taken from the the wild. There is now a plan to separate them. How sad this is.

Zoos are notorious for shopping and shipping animals around as if they're objects with little or no concern for the animals involved. They treat the animals like we might treat furniture: "Oh, wouldn't Asiatic elephants look good here, or a polar bear there?" Zoo officials usually claim they're doing this for educational benefits, conservation, or for "the good of the species", but even on their own admission they really don't know that anything will be gained by these moves other than money and prestige. But surely, much will be lost for the animals involved. Some die in transit and others don't adapt to their new social and physical surrounds.

In a nutshell, zoos do not achieve what they claim they do and this is supported by a rigorous empirical study. According to this research published in a peer-reviewed professional journal (the paper is available here). Lori Marino, of Emory University, and her colleagues conducted a research project to assess the claims of a study performed by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) on why zoos matter. They report in their abstract:

Modern-day zoos and aquariums market themselves as places of education and conservation. A recent study conducted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) (Falk et al., 2007) is being widely heralded as the first direct evidence that visits to zoos and aquariums produce long-term positive effects on people's attitudes toward other animals. In this paper, we address whether this conclusion is warranted by analyzing the study's methodological soundness. We conclude that Falk et al. (2007) contains at least six major threats to methodological validity that undermine the authors' conclusions. There remains no compelling evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, or interest in conservation in visitors, although further investigation of this possibility using methodologically sophisticated designs is warranted.

Shaba and Connie are caught in a confused web of misleading claims, vagaries, and self-centered planning by people who now want to split them up. In a recent essay about the plight of Shaba and Connie, Tim Vanderpol correctly notes, "When it comes to elephants, Reid Park Zoo officials leave a trail of shifting explanations." It's also clear that the politics of the inane and heartless plan to separate Shaba and Connie aren't all that neat and tidy. Critics of the plan never got a chance to speak at a city council meeting in late November. 

The current general plan goes something like this, Acquire elephants from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and move them to Tucson and try to integrate Shaba with them. If that fails Shaba will be sent to another zoo. Connie will be sent to the San Diego Zoo where there are other Asian elephants. So, not only are Shaba and Connie going to be tossed around but so too will other elephants, all unnecessarily.

An essay published in 2006 in the New York Times 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. For example, 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. 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.

When elephants move 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 with what's being planned for Shaba and Connie and the other elephants who are to be moved around. (Along these lines, the Denver Zoo plans to open the Toyota Elephant Passage in June 2012. This represents a multi-million partnership between the zoo and regional Toyota dealers and will surely mean moving elephants and other animals here and there. Several new species will also be brought into the zoo.) 

Clearly, the plan for Shaba and Connie is not "in the best interests of all precious pachyderms involved" as claimed by Josh Brodesky in an opinion piece titled "Zoo right to split elehants" appearing in the Arizona Daily Star. Mr. Brodesky also writes: "We know Connie and Shaba will remember each other, and if they were ever reunited, they would recognize each other. It's less clear, though, whether they will miss each other." All one has to do is to see and feel the exuberant greeting ceremonies when elephants reunite to know that they do indeed miss one another. If they're happy and overjoyed to see one another then they will be unhappy when they are separated. Many animals experience separation anxiety. This is not deep Einsteinian thinking. It is wrong to split up Shaba and Connie on biological and ethical grounds. And beyond that, adding insult to injury, the lives of many other elephants also will be affected. 

No one who really knows elephants and cares about them would ever support the mass movement of these highly sensitive and sentient animals. They are not unconscious or unfeeling beings. In the past even the  director of the Reid Park Zoo, Susan Basford, agreed that Shaba and Connie should not be separated and should remain at the Reid Park Zoo (see for more history on the elephants at Reid Park). The proposed move will have no effect on the conservation of either African or Asian elephants. No zoo has ever introduced an elephant back into the wild. Elephants who live in zoos are condemned to a life of depravity for no zoo can provide what these amazing animals need in terms of social interactions and stimulation and space.

Splitting up Shaba and Connie, two long-term elephant friends, is bad biology, unethical, and inhumane. Based on meticulous long-term field research, we know African and Asian elephants are highly social, family-oriented, sentient, and emotional beings (for up to date data and discussion see and and and and and). Female Asian elephants have even been dubbed "social butterflies". Elephants form long-term relationships often lasting more than 50 years, joyfully celebrate their friendships, and deeply grieve the loss of family and friends. They care very much about what happens to them and to their friends. Of course Shaba and Connie will miss one another if they're separated. This is not mere anthropomorphism, a double-edged sword used to dismiss what we know about the emotional lives elephants and other animals, but a fact based on solid scientific knowledge about these amazing animals. Seeing positive emotions in animals is as anthropomorphic as seeing negative emotions but those who want to keep animals in captivity don't see it that way. According to them, only the nay-sayers and those who question the well-being of captive animals are guilty of being anthropomorphic. 

I also realize Shaba and Connie are different species of elephants, but in this case there is no reason at all to break up their close and enduring friendship because of this. They were thrust into a totally unnatural situation and successfully adapted to it. Splitting them up would be harmful to each. Their close and enduring friendship should override these concerns that should have been considered in the past. Tim Vanderpol notes, "Ward 2 City Councilman Paul Cunningham views this byzantine pageant with a slightly jaundiced eye. 'There's definitely an argument that there is 'science of convenience' here,' he says of the zoo's sudden concern over the Asian-African standard."

I've studied animal behavior and animal emotions for more than three decades and have written extensively about cases like this in my book The Emotional Lives of Animals and elsewhere. I've literally felt the grief elephants feel for the loss of an other elephant. "About 6 years ago I had the opportunity to observe elephants with renowned elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton. Iain and I were driving into the field in Samburu National Reserve in northern Kenya and I saw a group of elephants who formed a very loose group. Their heads were down, ears drooping, tails hanging listlessly, and they were just walking here and there, moping around, apparently broken-hearted. I asked ian if there was something wrong because not only could I see it but i could feel it and he told me the herd's matriarch had died recently and it wasn't clear if these individuals would get together again as they had been a tightly bonded group before she died. Just a few kilometers down the road I saw a group of elephants, each of whom was walking tall,heads up, ears up, and tails up. I could feel their happiness and joy; clearly they were close friends, and they looked as content as could be." I've also felt the sheer and unbounded joy when elephants reunite.

Shaba and Connie's situation raises a number of questions about what zoos do and why they exist. I realize zoos are not going to disappear any time soon. The study by Professor Marino and her colleagues clearly shows that zoos fall short on their claims that seeing animals in these facilities has long-term positive effects on people's attitudes toward other animals. Thus, we need to revisit the very reasons why zoos exist, why animals should be kept in these places and often shipped here and there as if they're objects for purposes of mating or adding to an already existing collection, and why people should visit them rather than watch videos of wild animals, observe the animals with whom they share their homes, or simply take walks in nature and enjoy the fauna and flora they see, hear, and smell.

Let's not let Shaba and Connie's story fade away because of indifference. Please let zoo director Susan Basford ( and the AZA know you are against separating these closest of friends. Because the Reid Park Zoo is city-owned contacting the mayor of Tucson, Jonathan Rothschild, would also be helpful. His email is

You wouldn't separate two long-time dog friends so let's not do it to Shaba and Connie. They're not objects to be moved here and there willy-nilly under the guise of education or conservation. The plan to separate them is unnecessary and thoroughly heartless. It's really one of those no-brainers. Shame on those who refuse to put the well-being of Shaba and Connie first and foremost. 

Playing "musical chairs" with animals who have no choice about what happens to them is serious business with dire consequences. Let's always remember that while elephants may have thick skins they also have tender hearts.

*An action alert has been set up here


Other people to contact are members of the Tucson City Council:

Ward 1 Council Member Regina Romero, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-4040
Ward 2 Council Member Paul Cunningham, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-4687
Ward 3 and Vice Mayor Karin Uhlich, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-4711
Ward 4 Council Member Shirley Scott, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-3199
Ward 5 Council Member Richard Fimbres, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-4231
Ward 6 Council Member Steve Kozachik, Email:; Phone: (520) 791-4601

In lieu of sending letters to all these addresses you can send your message to and it will be distributed to the Mayor and City Council and become public record.