Friday, February 17, 2006

What is Good for Zoos is Not Necessarily Good for Elephants

The title says it all. Good facts and good background on why Elephants do not belong in zoos and why zoos are nothing more than money making businesses only.


My opinion by Jim Kiser:

An enormous dilemma

What is good for zoos is not necessarily good for elephants

Jim Kiser


Do elephants belong in zoos? Closer to home, do elephants belong in

Tucson's Reid Park Zoo? These questions are being raised again by the

death 18 days ago of Toni the elephant at Washington's National Zoo, and

by the Bronx Zoo's announcement last week that it will phase out its

elephant exhibit, after more than 100 years of displaying the popular


The issue has some urgency in Tucson, where the City Council is planning a

new $8.5 million elephant enclosure at Reid Park Zoo, but work has not yet

started on the expansion.

City staff members are drafting recommendations for the improvements and

for raising the money, at least part of which will come from donations.

They are expected to report to the council in April.

If elephants don't belong in zoos

and some zoo directors believe they do not, as does the Humane Society of

the United States

then there is still time for Tucson to reverse course and give up its

elephants before the money is raised and spent.

Her trunk for a crutch

Toni the elephant was 40 years old

about 20 years less than she could have been expected to live

when National Zoo officials decided Jan. 25 to euthanize her. She

suffered from severe arthritis, and despite being administered elephantine

doses of ibuprofen, she had lost hundreds of pounds and suffered from

shrinking muscles, the Washington Post reported.

Ironically, Toni's death came just one week after zoo officials had said

euthanasia wouldn't be necessary. But zookeepers changed their minds after

Toni began "trying to take the weight off her front legs by leaning on her

trunk, by rocking back on her hind legs and by sitting down," according to

the newspaper.

Toni's health problems were not unique. In the wild, elephants will roam

as many as 50 miles a day. In a zoo, the lack of opportunity to walk and

get sufficient exercise, plus being confined to areas with hard surfaces,

causes many elephants to suffer severe foot problems and arthritis. At

their most extreme, these problems lead to premature deaths.

Moreover, elephants are intelligent, social animals, which prefer to live

in matriarchal herds of at least a half-dozen. Consequently, zoo life,

without sufficient contact with several other elephants, can result in

stereotypical weaving, pacing and head bobbing

all signs of stress or boredom. In the Oakland Zoo, before making

significant changes in their elephant management, officials observed one

elephant engaging in such abnormal behaviors for five hours each day.

It was elephants' complex social patterns, in fact, that prompted the

Bronx Zoo's decision not to replace its three female elephants when they

die. Tuss, the zoo's matriarch elephant, died in 2002, and the three

remaining elephants still have not figured out a new social arrangement,

according to news stories.

Research also has shown that elephants have shorter lives in zoos than in

the wild. That contrasts sharply with the experience of most other

species, which live considerably longer in zoos because of the regular

source of food, medical care and lack of predators.

"Extremist" zoo critics

Because of such acute problems, some experts have concluded elephants

don't belong in zoos. Of course, this has ignited a debate that, at times,

is heated.

Leaders of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, as well as some

Tucson city officials, depict such critics as a small minority of

animal-rights "extremists." But that is neither accurate nor fair.

The "extremists" include such people as Ron Kagan, the director of the

Detroit Zoo, who last year voluntarily gave up his two elephants, Wanda

and Winky, out of concern for their welfare. He sent them to a sanctuary

near Sacramento, Calif. "By many indices, elephants just don't do very

well in captivity," Kagan told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Another "extremist" is David Hancocks, former director of the

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, who wrote in a Seattle Times commentary last

year that "the history of elephants in zoos is full of mental and physical


A third "extremist" is the Humane Society of the United States. "We don't

think that elephants can be kept humanely in zoos," Richard Farinato, a

Humane Society executive, bluntly told a Portland, Ore., weekly newspaper.

And now that list of "extremists" includes the Bronx Zoo, which eventually

will divert the $58,000 it spends annually on each elephant to conserving

elephants in the wild.

In its defense, the zoo association's strong reaction to the critics is

understandable: It is difficult to accept criticism when you are trying to

do your best.

Tucson's elephant plans

Yet there is an even more important issue underlying the debate. If the

public decides that it is not good for elephants to be kept in zoos, how

long will it be before the public decides that it is harmful also to keep

other animals in zoos?

When the City Council decided in June to expand the elephant exhibit at

Reid Park Zoo, it had just two choices: Either provide better facilities

for its two elephants, Connie and Shaba, in accordance with new guidelines

from the American Zoo Association, or send the elephants elsewhere.

Shaba is important nationally because she is reaching the end of her

breeding age, and she is unrelated to any other zoo elephant, which

prevents inbreeding problems. The zoo association has recommended she have

at least two babies.

That recommendation carries extra weight because elephants are an

endangered species in zoos, as well as in the wild. Elephants will not

exist in zoos in as little as 30 years if more are not bred, according to

documents provided to me by Fred Gray, director of Tucson Parks and

Recreation Department, which oversees the Reid Park Zoo.

Tucson's plans call for a 7-acre expansion of the zoo, with a new barn

that could house up to six elephants. If Shaba has a baby, that would give

Tucson three elephants. But breeding Shaba is not a sure thing. Over the

years, zoos have done poorly at breeding elephants.

Organized opposition to the council's decision has arisen from a group

that named itself "Save Tucson Elephants." Nikia Fico, a UA law student,

told me members of her group go to the zoo every week and have collected

more than 4,000 signatures to present to the City Council.

Fico's group wants the city to transfer the elephants to the Elephant

Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. The sanctuary occupies 2,700 acres and

specializes in providing a healthy environment for elephants to live the

remainder of their lives without the stresses and ailments that come from

being exhibited in zoos or worked in circuses.

Carol Buckley, the sanctuary's executive director, offered in June to

accept both elephants, at no cost to the city. She told me Feb. 1 that the

offer is still open.

However, city officials say they will not accept the offer but instead

will keep the elephants.

Popular people magnets

Elephants are hugely popular with the public, especially schoolchildren.

When the Nashville Zoo opened a new elephant exhibit last year, monthly

attendance shot up by 15,000. That means additional revenue and greater

levels of public support.

In Tucson, Connie and Shaba are the zoo's most popular attraction, parks

director Gray told the City Council in June.

Indeed, the public response to elephants in the Tucson zoo has "far

eclipsed any reaction to the garbage fees or anything else," Andrew

Greenhill, chief of staff to Mayor Bob Walkup, told me. Greenhill said the

mayor supports expanding the zoo, adding, "The community has made it very

clear they want the elephants here."

Moreover, were the city to give up its elephants, it would move them to

another zoo, not the sanctuary, both Gray and Assistant City Manager Liz

Miller told me. One reason: The American Zoo Association has threatened to

withdraw the accreditation of other zoos considering sending their

elephants to a sanctuary. The Detroit Zoo encountered months of conflict

with the association over its decision to send its elephants to a


As part of its arguments, the city staff produced a document disputing

that sanctuaries are better for elephants. But Hancocks, former director

of the Desert Museum, disagrees. Here is what he wrote in his Seattle

Times commentary: "The quality of life at the Tennessee sanctuary, the

abundance of love the elephants receive, and the joy they experience are

beyond anything I have seen at any zoo. It seems an obvious choice."

It is relevant, too, that the Pittsburgh Zoo has joined with the

Conservation Fund in purchasing a 724-acre ranch for animal conservation

and breeding. Its first phase will focus on elephants. And at the National

Zoo, where Toni recently died, officials hope to replace the elephant

house at the main park location and to add a 100-acre or 200-acre elephant

facility at the zoo's research center.

Those efforts seem to acknowledge that any zoo planning to breed and

exhibit elephants needs to think in terms of hundreds of acres, not just a


Indeed, the Elephant Sanctuary's Buckley told me that Tucson's planned

expansion would still be inadequate. "Seven acres are no better than 1

acre. No better for the elephant," she said.

The Elephant Sanctuary started with 100 acres but doubled its size when

officials noticed elephants were not recovering from health problems as

well as expected. Even so, with 200 acres to roam in, Buckley said, "The

elephants laughed at us. They said, 'For us, we're still living in a

closet.' " Consequently, officials expanded the sanctuary to 2,700 acres.

Move Shaba and Connie?

Should the council decide to move Shaba and Connie to another zoo or a

sanctuary, Tucson children and many parents surely would protest.

But it is time for Tucsonans to face the issue: It is unlikely that the

city can provide appropriately for its elephants, even with an expanded

exhibit, and even if the city were to spend millions more than the $8.5

million already tentatively planned.

I am convinced Tucson should give up its elephants, with their unique

needs, and focus on providing better facilities and care for its other zoo


I am convinced, too, that the City Council made its decision without

engaging the public in a needed discussion about the appropriateness of

keeping elephants

and about the degree of commitment that keeping elephants demands from a


If that public discussion ever is held, Tucsonans likely will come to

recognize that what is good for zoos is not necessarily good for


A key expression of a parent's love for a child is, at the appropriate

time, to let it go. The same may be true of a community's love for an


Editorial columnist Jim Kiser appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Contact him at or 807-8012.

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