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Bottom Line Before Babies

December 13th, 2012 by Nicole Meyer

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In the small hours of November 30, the Oregon Zoo’s 18-year-old elephant Rose-Tu gave birth to a little girl. According to reports, staff immediately dragged the baby from her chained mother, harnessed her with rope, examined her, and returned the calf to Rose-Tu after more than 30 minutes of crucial bonding time had passed. Keepers separated Rose-Tu’s four year old, Samudra, from her before the birth. In nature, the entire herd is present and supportive at a birth, and babies are never kept from their mothers, but Rose-Tu was chained and alone. 

Just days later, the Seattle Times published a groundbreaking series calling attention to the ugly truth that zoos are desperate to hide—elephants suffer at the hands of the zoo industry. On a national level, the infant mortality rate for elephant births is 40%, nearly triple the rate in the wild. Two elephants have died for every one born in US zoos in the past 50 years; the population will not sustain itself at this rate.

We wish every elephant born a long and happy life, but that is unlikely for elephants caught in the trap of the zoo industry. And for this baby, now named Lily and about to be put on exhibit, the Oregon Zoo stacks the odds against her. For starters, under the breeding loan that brought the baby’s father, Tusko, to Oregon, the baby belongs to an elephant rental outfit in California called Have Trunk Will Travel, notorious for video that shows them training baby elephants by hitting and shocking them. The zoo insists that she will stay, but there is nothing in the contract that the zoo signed to prevent her being torn from her mother and shipped to HTWT. Samudra, too, can be given to HTWT if the zoo lacks space to house him as he matures. Tragically, it appears that the zoo was willing to barter these babies’ futures for their temporary ability to attract visitors.

Also bartered away: the futures of the bull elephants used to make these babies. Packy, overrepresented in the gene pool and, so, useless to the zoo, sways in his enclosure while awaiting progress on the 200 acre preserve that Oregon voters endorsed in a bond measure approved in 2008. No action has been taken yet, and the elephants are still waiting for even the addition to their current enclosure, to bring it to 6 acres, also approved in that bond measure. And Tusko’s future, when he’s given the zoos enough babies, is even grimmer. Will he be returned to HTWT – they care so little about him that they are willing to trade him for Samudra – or sent off to yet another zoo for more invasive sperm extractions?

This is all standard for this zoo. Oregon’s breeding program has a miserable history: 28 elephants born since 1962, of which 16 are already dead. Seven died before they were two months old, five before they were even given a name. Babies Judy and Stretch, moved when they were infants, have been “lost to follow up” – no one kept track of them once they left Oregon. They are almost certainly dead, too.

Nor has survival secured a decent life for Oregon’s elephants. Time and again, the zoo has proved indifferent to the future of the babies it churns out, with tragic consequences. The zoo downplayed the breeding loan contract, lauding the strong bond between mother and baby, but historically they have been more than willing to break those bonds. Of the twenty babies who survived past infancy only six remained at the Zoo. Six went to circus trainers, others to roadside zoos. Ten were dumped before they were two, when they should still have been nursing. Cora, now with Ringling Bros, was torn away from her mother at the fragile age of 5 months. Nine were dead by the age of 34, although an elephant’s natural lifespan is like ours.

For the few who stay at the zoo, life is far from rosy. Every elephant in Oregon suffers from foot and joint disease, the number-one killer of captive elephants. There is a history of bullhook abuse. Now the zoo faces the possibility that, in the rush to breed, they have introduced into the zoo a deadly elephant virus that has killed 35 percent of Asian elephants born in U.S. zoos over the last 12 years.

The zoo seems already to be looking ahead to its next breeding effort; it appears that their eyes are always on the bottom line. Ten years ago, 51 year old Pet was forced to endure a highly invasive breeding evaluation just three months before she was euthanized for long term, intractable pain from degenerative joint disease.

It’s time that the Oregon Zoo put an end to its selfish and exploitative breeding program and take immediate measures to improve the welfare of the elephants already at the zoo.

IDA and the the group (REAL) Friends of Packy and the Animals of the Oregon Zoo are holding a Day of Action for the Elephants at Oregon Zoo.

Please join them, if you can, on Saturday, December 15, from 12 to 2. For details, please go here.

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