Elephants are highly complex, social animals. In the wild, they live in extended family groups. Elephants form lifelong bonds and females stay with their mothers, aunts, sisters and other female relatives for their entire lives. Males stay with their mothers for up to fifteen years. These intelligent animals can travel many miles a day.
Today’s zoos are unable to meet the great physical, psychological and social needs of elephants. Zoos confine elephants to exhibits a few acres or less in size, a tiny fraction of an elephants’ natural home range. Zoos socially deprive elephants by keeping them in unnaturally small groups, and routinely break up any bond formed in the zoo world by shuffling elephants and other animals from one zoo to another for breeding.
Intense confinement, unnatural conditions and lack of space cause a range of problems for captive elephants, including:
Dramatically Shortened Lifespans
Harmful zoo conditions and practices shorten elephant lifespan by decades, as documented in a peer-reviewed survey of 4,500 elephants, published in the prestigious journal Science (December 2008). The study found that Asian elephants in European zoos had a median lifespan of just 18.9 years compared to 41.7 years for wild elephants in an Asian logging camp. African elephants’ median lifespan was 16.9 years, compared to 56.0 years for free-ranging elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
Captivity-induced health problems
Many elephants on display in zoos survive on a daily diet of painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications to mask captivity-related ailments which are the direct result of inactivity from confinement in artificial and restrictive zoo enclosures.
Arthritis and Foot Disease
Zoos cannot provide the vast acreage necessary to accommodate elephants’ need to walk. Elephants are biologically designed to be constantly on the move and spend 18 or more hours walking each day. Elephants in zoos spend their entire lives inactive in tiny enclosures, standing on concrete or hard compacted dirt. As a result, they suffer extremely painful arthritis and recurrent foot infections, which become lethal over time. In fact, these preventable conditions are the leading cause of euthanasia in captive elephants.
Neurotic behaviors are common consequences of severe confinement. Neurotic reactions can take the form of rocking or swaying, head nodding, and other repetitive motions. Sadly, many zoos still use force and dominance to manage elephants. Historically, elephants have been managed through coercive force, such as chaining for prolonged periods and the use of bullhooks and electrical hotshots. Chaining has a direct correlation to neurotic behavior in elephants.
The bullhook, also called an ankus, is a tool used to punish and control elephants. It is a heavy rod with a sharp steel hook at one end. Both ends inflict damage. Trainers often embed the hook in the soft tissue behind the ears, inside the ear or mouth, in and around the anus, and in tender spots under the chin and around the feet. They also use the heavy rod to strike the elephant between the eyes and in other sensitive places as punishment when an elephant fails to comply with a command.
Programs to breed elephants in captivity have largely failed, with high stillbirth and infant mortality rates, pregnancy complications and premature infertility in female elephants. Without the complex social network that sustains elephants in the wild, new elephant mothers in captivity are ill-equipped to nurture infants, causing many of them to die. Inexperienced mothers would normally learn from other females in the family herd, who help ensure the infant’s survival. Zoos cannot begin to accommodate these vital social structures.
Forced Confinement in Incompatible Climates
Zoos in cold climates pose additional health threats to elephants, who originate from the warm, temperate regions of Africa and Asia. Cold winters force elephants indoors for months at a time, into cramped enclosures that are even smaller than their inadequate outdoor areas. Forced indoors, elephants stand on concrete surfaces in their own urine and feces, which can lead to foot infection, joint disease and psychological problems stemming from boredom and stress.
Devastation, Not Conservation
Zoos falsely claim that exhibiting elephants is part of a conservation effort to ensure the species’ survival. In fact zoos are consumers, not preservers of elephants, causing them to die decades before their natural time. Due to failed breeding problems, zoos look to the wild to restock their dwindling elephant population, therefore creating additional pressures on wild populations already threatened by habitat loss and illegal poaching.