10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2016

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In Defense of Animals Announces 2016 List of Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants

In Defense of Animals has announced its respected annual list of the “Ten Worst Zoos For Elephants” in North America for 2016, exposing the shocking hidden suffering of elephants in zoos in the U.S. and Canada. In its thirteenth-year, the list reveals captivity-related deaths, abuse with bullhooks, grossly inadequate conditions, families ripped apart, elephants torn from Africa and shipped to US zoos, elephants coerced to “wash” cars, and even elephants found playing with a car battery.

It’s All in the Family: Except in the Zoo

2016 was a notable year of social disruption for elephants in North America zoos; particularly tragic since elephants are among the most socially dependent and complex animals on earth. It is unnatural for them to be living with unrelated individuals – let alone in unnaturally confining conditions. The lack of respect for elephant culture, communication and social needs exhibited by the captivity industry is shocking.

Sadly, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) elephant standards and the federal Animal Welfare Act regulations are woefully inadequate in meeting the myriad needs of elephants. In fact, more than half of the captive facilities shamed on the Ten Worst Zoos list – including the #1 worst zoo on our list this year, Oklahoma City Zoo – are accredited by the AZA, showing how little that accreditation means. In 2016, the AZA’s own study found social aspects of elephant lives to be of paramount importance to their wellbeing. AZA standards call for a paltry minimum of two males, three females or three elephants of mixed gender per zoo; not even in the same enclosure, unless they give the zoo a variance. Yet 20% of AZA accredited zoos have elephant exhibits holding only two elephants.  

Some AZA accredited zoos are even keeping highly social elephants in virtual isolation, such as New York’s Bronx Zoo, where the ironically named female elephant, “Happy,” is separated from two other females. Other AZA accredited zoos simply ignore incompatibility issues, such as the Buttonwood Park Zoo in Massachusetts that confines two females who are so incompatible that one of them has repeatedly sustained serious injuries from the other elephant. Other zoos keep male elephants in isolation and move them around for breeding purposes with little to no regard for their distinctive social needs. There are more examples of elephants who are bullied, seriously injured or, in past years, even killed by other traumatized elephants in their enclosures.

Shuffling elephants around has enabled the San Antonio Zoo to retain the long-lonely elephant, Lucky, by bringing in Nicole and Karen, two “surplus” elephants from the Ringling Bros. Circus. So far, Lucky has been observed getting along with her new inmates, hence this zoo is not on our 2016 list for the first time in eight years. However, Lucky still remains unlucky. If she had been sent to a sanctuary, she not only would have had expansive room to roam, but would have been able to choose her companions rather than have them chosen for her.

Family Values?

Most horrifically, zoos are not just moving elephants around between zoos, they are tearing elephant families apart in the wild. Three U.S. zoos are responsible for the kidnapping of young elephants from their families in Swaziland, Africa: the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas. The zoos imported 17 young elephants in early 2016 (one died while awaiting relocation), for the purpose of putting them on display and to try and shore up the plummeting number of elephants in zoos.  These zoos shared our #1 worst spot last year for the pending import, conducted under the unsubstantiated guise of “conservation.”

“Zoos are consumers, not conservers, of elephants”, said In Defense of Animals Elephant Scientist, Toni Frohoff, Ph.D. “Captive elephants are dying faster than they can reproduce, leading zoos to steal young elephants from the wild, which destroys the elephant societies zoos claim to be conserving. Behind the scenes, zoos in the U.S. and Canada are condemning Earth’s largest land mammals to lifetimes of deprivation, disease, despair, and early death. It is time to end the shameful exploitation of elephants in American zoos.”

“2016 was a shocking year for zoo elephant suffering”, said In Defense of Animals President, Dr. Marilyn Kroplick. “In our zoos, elephants’ rights are violated, they are stripped of their dignity, and forced to submit to disgusting abuses in barren prisons. We owe it to elephants to protect them from exploitation. It is time to shut down archaic and barbaric zoo exhibits, and retire elephants to sanctuaries where they can live in peace.”

Several of the zoos on our list are still using barbaric bullhooks and unprotected contact for handlers as we highlight in our #10 worst zoo - described as “Blackfish with Bullhooks”. On a positive note, 2016 was a banner year for bullhook bans in the U.S., indicating a positive change in public attitudes towards the humane treatment of elephants and other wild animals. The bullhook is a brutal weapon used to beat, jab, and psychologically torment elephants. First Rhode Island, then California, became the first states to finally enact legislation banning bullhooks. Lawmakers have been passing similar legislation in cities and counties across the U.S., and these victories for elephants likely contributed to the Ringling Bros. Circus’ early cessation of its elephant acts in 2016. Sadly, Ringling’s definition of retirement for the 40-plus elephants under its control differs drastically from true retirement as exemplified in Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries certified sanctuaries. The circus continues to ship elephants out of “retirement” to prolong their exploitation in zoos.

How Does In Defense of Animals Determine which Zoos Make the List?

While all zoos confining elephants for public display in the U.S. and Canada are considered, In Defense of Animals considers a number of factors to narrow down the list. We assess facilities in-person, through review of government and veterinary records, death reports, consultation with elephant scientists and other experts, and via image and data documentation. Priority is given to notable events occurring in the prior year, such as premature elephant deaths or overt violations of the Animal Welfare Act, such as egregious disregard for the social and medical needs of elephants. Other factors include health problems, unsuitable enclosures, cold climates, reckless breeding, unhealthy elephant behaviors, brutal management procedures, and inappropriate social challenges ranging from incompatibility between elephants to naturally social elephants being kept in crushing solitary confinement.

This annual list exposes and highlights the myriad and often shocking challenges endured by elephants living behind the facades of zoo exhibits. Given the exorbitant and typically unsubstantiated claims of education, research, and conservation made by zoos, elephants - and the public - deserve better. It is with this intention that the Ten Worst Zoos List is produced. In addition to the Ten Worst Zoos, one zoo typically earns a Dishonorable Mention, while others may be added to the Hall of Shame.


Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America 2016

1. Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma

The Sad Saga Continues…

The Sad Saga Continues…

CREDIT: Public Record via Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants 

The saga of Seattle Zoo’s former Asian elephants, Chai and Bamboo, took a heartbreaking turn when Chai, at only 37 years old, was found dead and alone in the outside exhibit at Oklahoma City Zoo in the early morning of a very cold January day in 2016. Her death came eight months after the harrowing cross-country journey from Seattle to an even colder climate in Oklahoma. The regional and national outcry of unprecedented concern had galvanized the Seattle Zoo to do something regarding its elephants and it was widely demanded - and even anticipated - that the two elephants be retired to a sanctuary. Tragically, the zoo industry failed to act in the best interest of these suffering elephants and shipped the unfortunate pair to Oklahoma City Zoo.

Not long after her arrival in Oklahoma, Chai lost about 1000 pounds, and was found on the ground three times in one week. On two occasions she needed to be mechanically hoisted up. She also had a bacterial infection in her bloodstream, likely caused by 25 clearly visible pus-filled abscesses that went untreated, among her other chronic health problems. Yet the Oklahoma Zoo had the audacity to say that there were “no red flags” before her death.

CREDIT: Public Record via Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants 

As for Bamboo, she has not fared well either since her long distance transfer and the loss of her longtime companion.  She is being repeatedly attacked by at least one other female Asian elephant. In March of 2016, about two inches of her tail was bitten off in the third attack.  Since her arrival, she has also suffered skin abrasions and fissures, a six-inch gash on her trunk, and swelling above one eye. Caught between bullying and crushing loneliness, Bamboo has no way to escape these attacks and is responding aggressively and, ultimately, defensively, with other elephants and staff. She is now often kept in isolation from the other elephants to avoid further attacks, with the zoo simply switching one form of her suffering for the other. At times, Bamboo has socialized with a young male elephant, but this is no substitute for the long-term female companionship she needs. Integration with the zoo’s surviving, and related three females is clearly failing, yet the Oklahoma City Zoo repeatedly claims that Bamboo is doing “great”. By what brutal standards is this assessment being measured?

Magnifying this unnecessary tragedy and negligence, the Oklahoma City Zoo failed to heed warnings that both Bamboo and Chai had been exposed to the Herpes virus and that importing these two elephants could introduce this disease to the resident calves, Malee and Achara. Since Bamboo and Chai arrived, Malee died from the same strain of the virus, and Achara contracted but survived the virus. The Zoo’s purchase of a machine to test for the virus does not ensure against future reckless elephant breeding. After being on our list twice, Oklahoma City Zoo, welcome to our #1 worst spot for your part in creating a devastatingly tragic outcome for generations of elephants. We ask that you listen to science and compassion; let beleaguered Bamboo live out her remaining days in an accredited sanctuary where she can finally find some peace.


2. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia

Bridge to Nowhere

CREDIT: Barbara Baker

How much more animal cruelty and how many more violations must occur until this dilapidated roadside atrocity is shut down? Anything but natural, Natural Bridge Zoo continues to be a prison for Asha, the 33-year old African elephant referred to as a “pet” by zoo owners Karl and Debbie Mogensen. Asha is more like their cash cow, forced to give rides in the blistering summer heat to anyone who can climb up on her tired back.

Life for lonely Asha consists of complete isolation from any other elephants, coercion using bullhooks, and long, lonely winters in a barn. The city of Richmond recently passed a bullhook ban that will go into effect in 2018, but two hours away at Natural Bridge Zoo, Asha’s keepers continue to use a barbaric bullhook to “control” her.

2016 brought yet another round of USDA violations for this animal house of horrors in August, including the mishandling of Asha by her keepers. Since January 2015, the USDA has visited the zoo five times, finding a total of 62 Animal Welfare Act violations. Back in April of 2014, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries suspended the Zoo’s permit, but could only keep it closed temporarily.

Unaccredited roadside atrocities like Natural Bridge Zoo often fly under the radar, and keep some of the worst wildlife traffickers in business who get away with horrific abuses. The active USDA investigation, and continued attention focused on Natural Bridge Zoo, should lead to the Zoo finally having its license revoked and Asha and the rest of the Zoo’s victims sent to sanctuaries.

This is the third year in a row that the Natural Bridge Zoo has been shamed on our list and it should by all counts be the last.


3. Honolulu Zoo, Hawaii

Hawaii is No Paradise for Elephants


CREDIT: J.Byerly / Flickr

This is Honolulu Zoo’s fourth time on our list. Vaigai and Mari, two female Indian elephants, had the misfortune of being kidnapped from India only to be victimized for decades by Honolulu Zoo’s inability to provide them with reasonably consistent and decent management even by captive facility standards. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) withdrew Honolulu Zoo’s accreditation in 2016 after its 2015 inspection. Five Honolulu Zoo directors have quit in the past six years.

A former chief of the AZA even reported in late 2016 that the elephants were playing with a car battery that they had recently found or dug up. Violations at Honolulu Zoo included too little shade provided for the elephants from the direct sun, inadequately tested and brackish water, a notable absence of habitat enrichment, and unsafe rocks that posed a danger to elephants’ feet. A primary key reason cited for the loss of accreditation was the Zoo’s long history of lacking funds and support from the City and County of Honolulu, the Zoo’s legally-bound administrators. Hawaii voters recently approved an amendment to prop up the failing zoo through tax revenues.

Honolulu Zoo expanded its elephant exhibit at a cost of 12 million dollars, but still made our 2011 list. As we noted then, the enclosure was already outdated and far too small to meet evolving standards. The Zoo still puts elephants and keepers at risk by putting staff in direct contact with the elephants while brandishing bullhooks - which are nothing less than weapons- to control elephants through pain and fear.

Retire Vaigai and Mari to a certified sanctuary — a true paradise for these elephants.


4. Edmonton Valley Zoo, Alberta, Canada

Still Cramped and Cold in Canada

CREDIT: Lucy's Edmonton Advocates' Project

Lucy is a 41-year old Asian elephant who has spent the last 39 years living in one of the coldest cities in Canada. She is the most northern elephant in the world, and she has the arthritis, dental disease, and respiratory problems to prove it.

The Edmonton Valley Zoo continues to be non-compliant with Alberta’s Zoo Standards, yet the zoo’s permit was reissued this year by the Alberta government.

One of the many standards established by the Province requires that animals, “must be maintained in numbers sufficient to meet their social and behavioral needs,” yet Lucy remains alone with no elephant companions, in a barren, antiquated, and inadequate exhibit. Science has unequivocally demonstrated the devastating impacts from lack of same species companionship for such a highly intelligent and social animal. However, Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums continues to grant the Zoo a variance that allows it to keep a solitary elephant, and the government is failing to enforce standards that should be protecting her welfare.

Lucy remains, literally, between a rock and a cold, hard place. Winter temperatures in Edmonton are regularly sub zero, and this year dropped to -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Canada is no place for an elephant evolved for a tropical climate.

Lucy’s most essential needs as an elephant continue to be brazenly disregarded by her captors who insist on keeping her in their frozen prison as their main “attraction.” Traveling to and from her lonely barn, for short walks on frozen winter ground with her bullhook-toting zookeeper, Lucy lives a tragic existence for an elephant evolved to live in multi-generational herds and tropical weather.

This is the seventh consecutive year that Edmonton Valley Zoo has been featured on our list, and seven times too many for such egregious violations of elephant welfare.


5. Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

Breeding Tragedy - Enough BULL

CREDIT: Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants

Samudra is an 8-year old Asian bull elephant born at the Oregon Zoo in 2008; his mother, Rose-Tu was also born at the zoo in 1994 where she still is held captive. Rose-Tu was severely beaten by one of the zookeepers in 2000 when she was just five years old.

On multiple occasions in 2016, Samudra was observed isolated in a separate enclosure, even though he is far too young to be alone. During these times, he has exhibited indications of depression which is not surprising given the absence of elephant companionship this juvenile so desperately needs.

CREDIT: Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants

Another bull held captive at the zoo, Packy, was born at Oregon Zoo in 1962. He was eventually forced to breed with both his sisters, Hanako and Me-Tu. Four calves were sired, three of whom died within 6 months, the fourth is still alive. Packy has spent most of his life alone, not by choice, but by force, as is true for most adult bulls in captivity on public display. He suffers from devastating captivity-related conditions, including arthritis, joint disease, and a recurring round of active tuberculosis for which no effective treatment has been found.

Packy is ill, he is isolated, and he is a tragic symbol of the lonely, disturbed life inflicted on bull elephants in zoos. Breeding elephants in captivity does nothing for conservation other than create dysfunctional, diseased and inbred family trees. If only the 58 million dollars spent on Oregon Zoo’s new exhibit could have gone instead towards true conservation, it could be protecting elephant populations and entire habitats in the wild for decades.

Unless he is sent to sanctuary, Samudra, the young bull, will be following in Packy’s crippled footsteps carrying on his diseased and lonely legacy. The reckless captive breeding that is forced upon the elephants at the Oregon Zoo breeds nothing but tragedies and ticket sales.

2016 marks the 7th year that Oregon Zoo has been shamed on our list.


6. Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York

Bucket List Denied in Buffalo’s Brutal Cold

CREDIT: Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Despite reported renovations, living conditions for elephants at the brutally cold Buffalo Zoo remain a daily challenge for Asian elephants Supara and Jothi. The tiny enclosure is still a paltry prison, complete with bars. Here, the two lonely elephants are forced to endure long, hard winters. In February, temperatures dropped to an arctic -11 degrees Fahrenheit - a far cry from their natural tropical climate. This entails months of lack of exercise and forced to stand on hard surfaces that harm the feet and joints of elephants; a noted cause of captivity-related pain, illness and early mortality. Video footage captured in Buffalo Zoo's barn reveals the pair swaying on the spot, a persistently repetitive motion known as "stereotyped behavior" that indicates intense stress and poor welfare in confined, unnatural environments.

CREDIT: Robin Donovan

In response to criticisms about the cramped space, zoo president Donna Fernandes said that the elephants, “...can move back and forth. They can turn around,” as though Jothi and Supara should be thankful just to be able to walk a few steps.

Fernandes inadvertently revealed another horror for the elephants, commenting that after the zoo’s new construction, she sees, “...a lot less of what I would consider malicious behavior from visitors.” Apparently, this poor pair had endured, and continues to experience, harassment from the public, adding insult to the injury of being held captive in the cold for so many years.  

In October, Fernandes announced that she will be retiring in order “to go through her bucket list and do the things she wants to do with her family.” The elephants she has held captive will never get to make any such meaningful decisions while they are imprisoned in the Buffalo Zoo – which could be for the rest of their lives, if the zoo has its way.

Will the Buffalo Zoo consider Supara and Jothi’s retirement, especially given the AZA standards requiring a minimum of three elephants? A certified, temperate-climate sanctuary, where the elephants could do far more than “move back and forth” and “turn around” would be a rainbow at the end of these two elephants’ bucket lists. Please melt your hearts, Buffalo Zoo, and let these poor elephants thaw out.


7. Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon

Washed Out for Elephants


Wildlife Safari in Oregon is a repeat offender on In Defense of Animals’ Worst Zoos for Elephants lists five out of the past six years. Why? The Zoo still uses barbaric bullhooks, fails to follow modern standards of public safety and disease prevention, and in 2016 it resumed its extraordinary exploitation of elephants by forcing them to perform as living car washes.

Wildlife Safari encourages physical contact between adults and children with elephants as if striving to be a petting zoo; marketing activities to hand-feed elephants and touch them. Recently the Zoo advertised, "Get up close and personal with your favorite pachyderm, pet their trunks, and even get an ‘Elphie’ (Elephant Selfie)." As if these crude and undignified tricks weren’t enough, Wildlife Safari also falsely portrays elephants as artists who are “thrilled” to paint pictures.

We are also concerned for one Asian elephant who is forced to reside at the zoo with five African elephants, revealing disrespect and a lack of understanding for basic elephant social needs.

This business violates modern public safety standards by allowing free contact between elephants and humans. Doing so increases the possibility of physical danger and the spread of diseases like tuberculosis that are transmissible between elephants and humans. Yet, Wildlife Safari encourages the public to touch elephant trunks and participate in circus-like car washes where elephants flush out their noses on the unsuspecting recipients’ cars. This is not conservation; it is a circus.


8. Pittsburgh Zoo, Pennsylvania

Frigid Elephant Mill: Where’s the Humanity or the Conservation?

CREDIT: Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

The Pittsburgh Zoo’s conglomerate of elephant captors goes to extremes. With thirteen elephants under its control, Pittsburgh Zoo and its International Elephant Center™ (IEC) intend to create an explosion of elephant births in North America — where, ecologically, they don't belong. Yet the Zoo’s IEC has not demonstrated much success in its cold-climate breeding mill. The Zoo’s IEC was on our 2010 list for “warehousing elephants in miserable conditions” during long winters where temperatures drop near zero degrees Fahrenheit. Its zealousness doesn’t end there.  

The Pittsburgh Zoo and its IEC insisted on continuing the use of archaic bullhooks on elephants and also refused to adequately adapt to modern standards of protective contact with elephants that would improve staff and public health and safety. Accordingly, the Zoo sacrificed its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Its most unusual violation was its use of dogs to control elephants until U.S. Department of Agriculture animal welfare regulators ordered it to stop in 2015. The Pittsburgh Zoo and the IEC's executive director even testified in opposition to legislation banning traveling animal acts.

None of the elephants or their offspring bred at the Pittsburgh breeding mill will be returned to the wild. And this facility will likely continue without even AZA recognition and with whatever second-rate certification it can obtain. More elephants will suffer in captivity, as was the case for Bette and Kallie who were cruelly separated after being deeply bonded for 10 years to grow the zoo and IEC’s breeding program.

Pittsburgh Zoo and its IEC consume substantial funding that should be going to conservation for elephants in Asia and Africa where they belong. Humane? Conservation? We think not.


9. Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Cold Hearts in Wisconsin

CREDIT: Kaushik / Youtube

In Defense of Animals listed the Milwaukee County Zoo on our 2014 list with the hope that the two African elephants, Ruth and Brittany, might eventually be sent to a certified sanctuary. Instead, the Zoo announced it would begin construction of an expanded elephant exhibit in 2016 to meet AZA elephant captivity standards. “Expansion” sounds innocent, if not favorable, until it is compared with what the elephants could have had - a lifetime of expansive rolling hills with other elephants in a temperate climate. Instead, Ruth and Brittany, who have been gawked at, displayed, and exploited for 35 years, will continue to endure long, cold winters spending much of their lives inside a barn in a city zoo, no matter how it is expanded. Worse, more elephants will likely be sharing this frigid fate with them. Milwaukee County officials and the Milwaukee Zoological Society expressed the goal of having the capacity to add five male elephants in what is likely to be an anticipated effort to breed future generations of cold, city-dwelling, confined elephants.


Ruth and Brittany are made to perform tricks for the public

This zoo is dedicating 15 million dollars to its unsavory ambition of ensuring elephants will serve lifetimes in captivity, when the real need for this money is for saving elephants in the African and Asian wilds. This decision is as coldhearted as the winters in Milwaukee, which regularly drop below freezing and this year reached a shocking low of -7F.

Ironically, to accommodate an expanded elephant exhibit, the Milwaukee County Zoo is closing exhibits of species that are native to North America — moose, wolves, and brown bears — in order to artificially create an elephant presence where it doesn’t belong. It’s not too late to stop this ill-conceived vision of elephants in Wisconsin.


10. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas

Blackfish with Bullhooks

CREDIT: Donnie Ray Jones / Flickr

The high-profile death and injuries of trainers at SeaWorld from traumatized captive orcas, as highlighted in the film Blackfish, resulted in what is slowly becoming a sea change of legislation and professional standards for orca captivity.  In response to the death of an elephant keeper and staff injuries at various facilities, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has created new guidelines for zoos that limit direct contact between humans and elephants.  Many experts - and the AZA – have determined that further separation than previously required from captive elephants (as with captive orcas) make conditions safer for humans. Yet the Forth Worth Zoo continued its dangerous policy of “free contact” with the seven Asian elephants held captive there – putting traumatized elephants and bullhook-wielding humans in the same confined space, risking both elephant and human safety as well as elephant wellbeing.

The Zoo’s latest demonstration of its irresponsible policy came in March in 2016, when NBC 5/NBCDFW conducted an investigation into an elephant attack on a trainer back in September 2015. The Zoo reported the incident as “minor,” yet ambulance records describe “serious” injuries, including a puncture wound to a Fort Worth Zoo handler.

Not only did the zoo egregiously downplay the severity of the injury and fail to report it in a lawful manner, but it also did everything in its power to stifle the story to prevent the public finding out about the disaster. In a demonstration of downright irresponsibility, the AZA also conspired with Fort Worth Zoo in the attempted cover-up by pressuring the news agency to delay airing the report, even though its member zoo was clearly in the wrong.

When it was revealed that Fort Worth failed its legal requirement to report the incident to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), OSHA issued a citation and a fine for safety violations, including one deemed serious because “… the employer did not protect the employees from the hazards of being struck-by, caught-in-between and impalement while working with elephants.”

This incident underscores the many issues inherent with keeping elephants in captivity. Elephants, like orcas, are wild animals and should not be treated like domesticated individuals, no matter how well trained. Doing so unnecessarily jeopardizes human and elephant safety. But what about what the elephants want? As usual, the wellbeing of the elephants comes last at the Zoo, with the safety of humans who willingly go to these facilities considered far more important than the wellbeing of elephants and other animals who are forced to live in captivity against their wills. At the Fort Worth Zoo, the safety and wellbeing of both the elephants and its employees leave a lot to be desired.


Hall of Shame Award

Buttonwood Park Zoo, New Bedford, Massachusetts

Button Up, Buttonwood

CREDIT: Friends of Ruth and Emily Inc.

This is the seventh consecutive year on our list for Buttonwood Park Zoo, earning it a Hall of Shame Award for refusing to retire two tragically incompatible Asian elephants, Ruth and Emily, to sanctuary. Emily has posed grave dangers to Ruth, including biting off six inches of Ruth’s tail in 2006. Given her excessively stressful living conditions, it is not surprising that in 2016, Ruth was diagnosed with a serious gastro-intestinal condition when she lost a notable amount of weight.

CREDIT: Friends of Ruth and Emily Inc.

The zoo claimed that when Ruth and Emily pass away, it will no longer have an elephant exhibit. Why wait and perpetuate so much suffering in the process? Housing two incompatible elephants together is a USDA violation - one this zoo has been cited for many times over. Yet the USDA has not properly intervened and the zoo has stated that instead of sending Ruth and Emily to a spacious and warm-weather sanctuary, it is sentencing these two to live in discord for the rest of their impoverished lives.

To keep its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the zoo must meet new elephant management standards. To comply with space requirements, the Zoo will spend close to two million dollars on the elephant exhibit which will include expansion of space to a total of not quite ½ an acre - a miserly increase that will ultimately have little impact on the fundamental issue of Ruth and Emily’s troubled and life-threatening relationship.

Had Ruth and Emily’s well-being truly been the priority for the zoo directors and city council, this absurd amount of money could have covered Ruth & Emily’s transport to a sanctuary, as well as ensured their successful integration with other elephants. Yet again, another zoo comes to a moral and financial crossroads with its elephant exhibit, and has chosen profits over truly humane conditions for the elephants.


Dishonorable Mention

Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

It’s Up to You, New York…

CREDIT: Rosana Delgado

In 2006, the Bronx Zoo acknowledged that it could not meet the needs of the elephants it holds in captivity and announced that it would end its elephant exhibit when one or two of the elephants died. Now a decade later, the three Bronx Zoo Asian elephants are still enduring bitterly cold winters in an exhibit that does not meet their needs and, most disturbingly, one elephant continues to be sequestered and lives in solitary confinement.

Patty and Maxine are bonded and housed together, but the third elephant, ironically named Happy, lives alone and separated from the two so as to not be injured or even killed by them. In 2002, Patty and Maxine attacked Happy’s companion, Grumpy, who died from her injuries. In 2006, Happy was the subject of research in mirror self-recognition that proved that elephants are not only vastly intelligent but also self-aware. Happy’s reward for her contribution to science has been another decade – and perhaps a life sentence - of solitary confinement in which she is poignantly self-aware of her own bleak and lonely existence.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is the parent company of the zoo and is doing real work for elephant conservation in the wild. The Society knows that social bonds are paramount to elephant well-being - and that human zookeepers are no substitute for other elephants - so it has no excuse for perpetuating this cruel and forced isolation.

If that weren’t enough, winter in the Bronx is harsh. This year, temperatures dropped to just 1 degree Fahrenheit and must be the cause of considerable yearly suffering for all the elephants, whether outside or locked inside. Elephants simply don’t belong in such a climate; especially alone.

The Bronx Zoo was put in the Hall of Shame last year but we couldn't let it rest there due to its repeated offenses; it has now earned itself a Dishonorable Mention. So is the Bronx Zoo really waiting for one or more elephants to die before the last survivors can be sent to a reasonably suitable facility? There is a warm and inviting sanctuary waiting for Happy - who no longer needs to be unhappy serving a long and lonely sentence - and for Patty and Maxine. We call on you, New York, to turn this tragedy into a happy ending.


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