In Defense of Animals

AZA Releases Initial Results of Zoo Elephant Welfare Study

September 18th, 2013 by Nicole Meyer


AZA Releases Initial Results of Zoo Elephant Welfare Study

In Defense of Animals Calls Study a “Science-based Excuse for Zoos to Carry on Business as Usual”

With a self-congratulatory pat on the back, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) released preliminary findings of a three-year study—funded by taxpayers—called “Using Science to Understand Zoo Elephant Welfare” at its annual conference last week in Kansas City, MO. IDA attended the conference and heard the initial results first-hand.

While the AZA heralds the study as “groundbreaking” in providing “new, scientifically based information that zoos can use to improve the welfare of their elephants,” it confirms in part what IDA has asserted for years—that elephants need space and dynamic social interaction. The preliminary results present a mere snapshot of a cross section of the general population of zoo elephants, not a comprehensive overview of the entire population. Instead of addressing pervasive problems such as arthritis, foot problems, and stereotypic behavior head-on, the initial results appear to downplay chronic issues without taking into account cause and effect, or the welfare of individual elephants.

After years of criticism over minimal zoo-industry standards that fail to meet even the most basic needs of elephants—social dynamics and space—the AZA was forced to publicly address the undeniable fact that elephants simply aren’t faring well in captivity and are dying prematurely, decades short of wild elephants, from diseases directly related to captivity. According to The Seattle Times, which published a truly groundbreaking investigative report on zoo elephants in 2012 based on exhaustive research pulled from zoo-industry records, “… of 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the past 50 years… most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time.” Further, “Of the 321 elephant deaths for which The Times had complete records, half were dead by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.”

But the initial AZA study results paint a far rosier picture—an affirmation, of sorts, that AZA standards and practices are in fact working and contributing to improved elephant welfare. One would expect that a study on this reported scale, presumably taking into account the grave challenges elephants face in the small confines of zoo captivity, would compel a dramatic and radical shift in the paradigm and practice of housing elephants in zoos. Yet, preliminary results fail to shed new light on what is widely known about how captivity compromises elephant welfare from a physical, social, and behavioral standpoint. While the AZA claims the findings of the study are “actionable,” initial results don’t provide any meaningful measures zoos can take that might lead to significant improvements—and raise more questions about the study than they answer.

According to the AZA, the study team “identified six welfare indicators, including some perceived issues for zoo elephants such as body mass, behavior, and reproduction.” Records IDA has obtained from zoos over the years confirm that these are significant problems for elephants. The study also reportedly “considered a wide range of management factors that can influence an elephant’s welfare, such as housing, exercise and social groupings.” Researchers claim to have taken a “novel” approach in quantifying these factors; yet, preliminary results fail to explain what this approach was, how the data was interpreted, or identify any baselines used in the study.

IDA found that specific findings cited in the initial results were mostly vague and inconclusive. For example, in media reports shared far and wide, the AZA claims that a significant finding is that in 2011, 61% of the elephants “reviewed” had “no reported foot problems.” Similarly in 2012, 75% of the elephants had “no joint problems.” It was also announced that a majority of elephants “approximately 2/3 of the population” exhibited some stereotypic behavior. And, it’s also no surprise that the study found that a majority of elephants in zoos (75%) are overweight, and that breeding elephants in zoos is not replenishing the current population fast enough. But what these initial findings fail to explain is what criteria were used to determine what constitutes problems, do not appear to account for recurring problems, or explain in detail under what conditions (and how many) elephants were observed directly, and for how long.

In addressing the lack of success in breeding elephants in captivity, the study suggests breeding every reproductively viable female and—consider this an ominous warning for things to come—the potential import of elephants to offset the loss of older elephants.

While the study will require further analysis and has not yet been peer-reviewed or published, IDA can only hope that it will at least lead to some improvements for elephants in zoos. But based on these initial results, we expect that any changes will be minimal at best and that, in the end, zoos will only use the study for their own benefit as a science-based excuse to carry on business as usual.