10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2018

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Behind the Times for Elephants: So Called "Modern" Zoos are Harming Elephants with Outdated, Failing, and Inhumane Captive Methods

Zoos like to claim that they have changed and left the bad old days behind. But they haven't really. No matter how modern they claim to be, zoos continue to use and abuse elephants as property to increase paid attendance for profitability - with the animals always paying the price. Despite changing public opinion and rising concern for the care of captive wild animals, zoos continue the same harmful practices for elephants: Earth's largest land mammals continue to be captured in the wild and confined in tiny zoo exhibits that cause them to suffer and die prematurely, the use of cruel bullhooks to control elephants through fear and pain is still allowed, and important social bonds are severed when elephants are swapped between zoos like trading cards. Some so-called "modern" zoos use elephants to attract and entertain customers, forcing elephants to perform circus-style tricks under the guise of education. Even the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stopped using elephant acts before it shut down entirely!

In Defense of Animals' list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America, now in its 15th year, exposes the serious shortcomings of zoos for elephants. Clearly, elephants are not thriving in constricted zoo exhibits, no matter how fresh the paint or the addition of an acre or two. Elephant deaths continue to outpace births due to captivity-caused conditions like obesity, arthritis and foot disease. Still, zoos are spending millions of dollars on renovating or building new exhibits, even though there aren't enough elephants to fill them.

Elephants are quickly disappearing from the planet and the captive animal industry is more than willing to drain wild herds to keep elephants on display. In Defense of Animals has said it before and we'll say it again: captivity is not conservation and never will be. It's time for zoos to move away from keeping elephants captive to suffer and die, and instead focus on true conservation, which is protecting elephants where they live, in the wild.


2018 Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America

#1 Worst Zoo
Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

"Happily Never After?"

For over a decade, Happy the elephant has lived forced isolation in a cold, cramped and utterly outdated enclosure at the Bronx Zoo.
Credit: In Defense of Animals

In 2006, the Bronx Zoo publicly stated that it would "shut down its Asian elephant exhibit after the death of two of its three elephants, or even one." Since the death of 48-year-old Maxine in November 2018, there has been no word on the remaining elephants' fate.

Bronx Zoo now imprisons two solitary elephants: Patty, 48, and Happy, 47, who remain separated from one another, keeping Happy in forced isolation for over a decade. The Zoo blames Happy for this, claiming that she doesn't get along with other elephants, while at the same time admitting Happy at one point had a companion she liked!

Dr. Joyce Poole, an acclaimed scientist who has studied elephants for more than 40 years, responded to this claim in an affidavit in support of the lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project to free Happy and send her to a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

Dr. Poole pointed out that the Bronx Zoo contradicts itself by claiming Happy had a companion she liked and she doesn't get along with other elephants. She stated, "In forty years at the Bronx Zoo, she [Happy] has only been given a choice of four companions with whom she has been forced to share a space that, for an elephant, is equivalent to the size of a house. Two of these companions she liked and lost, and the other two attacked her. This is hardly a basis for drawing the conclusion that Happy has a 'history of not getting on with other elephants'. It is rather a confirmation of the Zoo's inability to meet Happy's basic needs.'"

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) operates the Bronx Zoo and has previously stated how "It would be inhumane to sustain an exhibit with a single elephant." Tragically it seems to have reversed its position, stating that it has "no intention of transferring Happy. IDA requested medical records for three elephants including Maxine, who was recently euthanized. WCS, and the true owner of Bronx Zoo, the City of New York, refused our request. Our appeal is pending.

In Defense of Animals calls on the WCS and the Bronx Zoo to honor its 2006 public pledge and shut down the elephant exhibit, which is simply too cold, too small, and utterly outdated. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and five borough presidents are voting members on the WCS board. We call on Mayor de Blasio, the New York City Council, and the WCS to release Happy and Patty to a GFAS accredited sanctuary so they can live out the rest of their lives in peace.

It's time to end the WCS ignorance that relationships with humans are all Happy and Patty need. Stop ignoring the science. This is the eighth time the Bronx Zoo has been on In Defense of Animals' 10 Worst Zoos list, and the first time it has made the #1 spot.

Act Now In Defense of Elephants: Stop Animal Planet Whitewashing Elephant Suffering at Bronx Zoo!

2. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia

"Alone at a Roadside Atrocity"

Asha at Natural Bridge Zoo is forced to give tourist rides and endure heartbreaking solitary confinement.
Credit: One World Conservation

Natural Bridge Zoo continues to confine Asha, a female African elephant, in solitary confinement under conditions that violate even the most minimal standards of care. This Zoo has accumulated hundreds of Animal Welfare Act violations for mistreating and neglecting Asha and other caged animals, yet there she remains imprisoned alone in a small, barren display. Asha has not had the company of another elephant for nearly 20 years, a crushing sentence for animals who require social contact with their own species.

Captured in the wild as an infant and sold to Natural Bridge Zoo in 1985 at the tender age of two, Asha has been forced to give rides to tourists in the hot summer sun, walking in the same endless circles for decades. The money that thousands of oblivious people pay to ride on Asha's back, while an employee threatens her with a sharp bullhook to keep her in check, means Natural Bridge Zoo has no intention of stopping the abuse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the welfare of animals in zoos, has so far failed to take action and remove Asha despite the overwhelming documented problems at this roadside facility.

This is the fifth consecutive year that Natural Bridge Zoo appears on In Defense of Animals' 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. This roadside atrocity is where ignorance is bliss and the owner makes money – while Asha suffers in lonely, horrific deprivation. She deserves the gift of immediate release to a sanctuary accredited by GFAS/Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries where she can be an elephant rather than an exploited roadside attraction.

Act Now In Defense of Elephants: Urge "Responsible" Agencies to Release Asha to Sanctuary!

3. Dallas Zoo, Dallas, Texas

"Ignoring the Science of Elephant Well-Being"

Dallas Zoo severs bonds of already-traumatized kidnapped African elephants in order to breed them for profit.
Credit: Culturemap Dallas

In 2016, the Dallas Zoo, along with Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, cold-heartedly kidnapped 18 elephants from their families in Swaziland, amid condemnation from conservationists around the world. These elephants were treated like products, bought from a corrupt Swazi safari park operator to shore up the dwindling number of elephants on display in U.S. zoos. It should be no surprise that these suffering elephants are once again being traded like commodities to zoos around the country, instead of being treated like the sensitive animals they are.

In October 2018 – just two years after the import – the Dallas Zoo upended these traumatized elephants' lives once more. Nolwazi, and Amahle (who the Zoo claims to be Nolwazi's daughter), were shipped from Dallas to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California, severing their bonds with the Swazi elephants left behind, some of whom may even be their relatives. The sole purpose is for breeding, to produce even more captive elephants for zoos to display.

Science has shown that elephants have complex minds, an array of deep emotions, and are self-aware. These are inconvenient truths for zoos. If zoos truly embraced these realities, they would not separate bonded females or mothers and calves, nor would they callously exploit wild populations for elephants to display. They would recognize that true conservation efforts take place in the wild and not behind the bars of a zoo enclosure.

We urge the Dallas Zoo to stop its horrific severing of elephant social bonds and end the trading of elephants to other zoos.

Act Now In Defense of Elephants: Tell Dallas Zoo to Stop Traumatizing Elephants for Profit

4. Louisville Zoo, Louisville, Kentucky

"#MeToo at the Zoo"

Forced insemination and creating unnatural social groupings is business as usual at Louisville Zoo.
Credit: In Defense of Animals

Last year, the Louisville Zoo was rated #4 on In Defense of Animals' list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants because of its repeated artificial insemination assaults on Mikki, a 33-year-old African elephant. Mikki is now halfway through her pregnancy and expected to give birth in the summer of 2019. This is yet another conservation sham that has far more to do with zoo revenue than saving elephants.

In the name of profit, female elephants like Mikki are forced to endure brutally invasive artificial insemination procedures over and over again, immobilized with their legs chained so keepers can penetrate their three-foot long reproductive tracts in hopes of producing a calf.

The Louisville Zoo is bringing a calf into an extremely unnatural and dysfunctional situation. Mikki's only companion is Punch, an Asian elephant. This is problematic because, in the wild, female elephants do not live with unrelated females, much less with one from a separate species. Mikki's baby will be born into an environment that couldn’t be further from that found in nature, where elephant babies are born into nurturing family units that include their mothers, grandmothers, siblings, and doting aunts and their young offspring. Without this, Mikki's calf will lack the upbringing necessary for normal development.

The chances of survival for Mikki’s calf are questionable. One study of U.S. zoos revealed the captive infant mortality rate is a staggering 40 percent - nearly triple that of elephant babies in the wild.

Contrary to popular belief (which is perpetuated by the zoo industry) elephants born in zoos will never be returned to the wild, so there is no conservation value in captive breeding. The real reason zoos like Louisville want baby elephants is because they are a huge draw and guaranteed to drive up revenue. As one now-retired zoo director stated, "[The birth of an elephant calf is] going to skyrocket the attendance like nothing ever has here."

It's time for the Louisville Zoo to stop conning the public with false conservation claims and end its sickeningly cruel breeding program.

5. Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island

"Living in the Dark Ages of Bullhook Cruelty"

Roger Williams Park Zoo continues to use the cruel bullhook on African elephants Alice, Ginny, and Kate.
Credit: The Providence

In 2016, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to prohibit use of the cruel bullhook – a menacing steel-tipped weapon resembling a fireplace poker – on elephants in traveling shows and circuses. Despite a resolution stating that "use of the bullhook causes pain to elephants," the state exempted the Roger Williams Park Zoo from its ban. It's a sad state of affairs when a zoo continues to use an archaic and inhumane weapon to control elephants through fear and pain, even though two states and numerous U.S. cities have banned the device.

Roger Williams Park Zoo has ridiculously stated that without the bullhook "zookeepers and other animal handlers would not be able to manage elephants and they could not be kept in captivity." This completely ignores the fact that most zoos have left the bullhook behind. Modern elephant management favors the "protected contact" method, which minimizes direct contact between humans and elephants. This method is more humane for elephants, far safer for keepers, and relies on positive reinforcement instead of coercion and brute force.

It's time for the Roger Williams Park Zoo to stop living in the dark ages of elephant management and join the modern world by giving up its cruel bullhooks and instead switch to the protected contact method to manage African elephants Alice, Ginny, and Kate. Even better, it could end its elephant program entirely and send the captive elephants to a sanctuary accredited by GFAS/Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Act Now In Defense of Elephants: Urge Roger Williams Park Zoo to Give Up Bullhooks

6. Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham, Alabama

"We call BULL on Birmingham Zoo"

At the Birmingham Zoo, elephants are little more than commodities to pimp, trade, exploit, and profit off of.
Credit: Birmingham Zoo/Facebook

The Birmingham Zoo proudly claims it is the first zoo to create a "bachelor herd" of four male elephants (known as bulls) and it touted the fact that the elephants formed "a brotherhood of sorts." Yet the Zoo hasn't hesitated to obliterate that brotherhood. In 2015, Birmingham Zoo sent 10-year-old Tamani to the Kansas City Zoo for breeding. In 2018, 17-year-old bull Ajani was relocated to the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, also for the purpose of breeding.

Research by world-renowned elephant experts shows that bull elephants can form close relationships with several other bulls that go on for many years and that they can even have a "best friend." Though their social organization could never be replicated within the limited confines of captivity, at the very least bull elephant bonds should be preserved.

While the Birmingham Zoo proclaims that male elephant social relationships are important, it treats elephants like unfeeling commodities. The males are valued principally for their sperm, which is used for perverse and cruel artificial inseminations, and breeding value. As long as zoos regard elephants as money-making property, socially-bonded bulls will continue to be separated and traded to zoos around the country, breaking important bonds.

Zoos don't value elephant brotherhood as much as they value producing more revenue-driving elephant calves. At the Birmingham Zoo elephants are little more than commodities to pimp, trade, exploit, and profit off of in every way the Zoo can. We call BULL.


7. Caldwell Zoo, Tyler, Texas

"Solitary Confinement"

At Caldwell Zoo, elephants die young and the last remaining elephant, Tonya, is kept in solitary confinement.
Credit: Caldwell Zoo

Rolinda, a female African elephant, was euthanized this year by the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas, at just 46 years old – an age when female elephants in the wild are in their prime, giving birth to offspring and possibly leading their families as the herd’s matriarch. Rolinda’s death left Tonya, a 41-year-old African elephant, alone – a highly unnatural, psychologically cruel and unhealthy state for members of this social species. Keeping a solitary elephant is a violation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) own elephant standards, of which Caldwell Zoo is a member.

Rolinda wasn’t the only elephant to die prematurely at this zoo. Chip, Chico, and Binti all died between 24 and 44 years of age from “unknown causes,” according to public records. Sadly, this isn’t unusual in zoos, where African elephants’ lives are cut short in their 30s on average, despite the provision of ample food and water, daily husbandry, and veterinary care. The natural lifespan for elephants often extends to 60-70 years.

Due to her life in captivity, Tonya is statistically likely to have  only a few years left. We urge the Caldwell Zoo to do the right thing and relocate her to a natural habitat at a GFAS-accredited sanctuary, where she can live a more natural life among other elephants.

8. Topeka Zoo, Topeka, Kansas

"Now is the Time To Do the Right Thing for Elephants"

Elephants Cora and Tembo are kept in captivity at Topeka Zoo, a facility with a long history of inadequate care resulting in citations, fines and lost accreditation.
Credit: 13 News

The Topeka Zoo was rated In Defense of Animals' #1 Worst Zoo For Elephants for 2017 for the indefensible neglect of Shannon, a 35-year-old African elephant who spent close to 20 hours lying on the ground suffering over two days before she died. Ten months later, Sunda, a 58-year-old Asian elephant, was euthanized due to ill health from captivity-related ailments. Now with just two elephants remaining – Asian elephant Cora and African elephant Tembo – the Topeka Zoo is in a position to finally do the right thing and shut down its lethal elephant exhibit.

In the past, the Topeka Zoo resisted efforts by In Defense of Animals and local animal advocates to shut down its inadequate elephant exhibit, which lacks space for movement and is situated in a cold climate which is damaging to elephants' physical and psychological health and well-being. The elephants' social situation is equally unsuitable and out of step with contemporary elephant care practices that enable elephants to live with their own kind; instead, Topeka Zoo mixes Asian and African elephants - which are two separate species- creating an unnatural and problematic social grouping.

Topeka Zoo has a long history of failing to provide adequate elephant welfare. Over the years the Zoo has been cited and fined numerous times for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. It lost accreditation at least once due to inadequate conditions, some of which have led to miserable deaths for animals at the Topeka Zoo.

We urge the Topeka Zoo to end its elephant program now. Send Cora and Tembo to live out the rest of their lives in far better and more natural conditions in a sanctuary accredited by GFAS/Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It's just the right thing to do.

9. Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, New York

"Seneca Sells 'Seniors' Short"

The Seneca Park Zoo falsely claims that elephants Genny C., Lilac, Moki, and Chana are "senior" to deflect the fact that they have been crippled by captivity.
Credit: Marie Krauss-neff

The Seneca Park Zoo made headlines for adopting a dog to live with their so-called "senior" elephants. In reality, the four elephants at the Zoo are not seniors at all, they have simply been debilitated from living in small, unnatural zoo enclosures for their entire lives.

The elephants of Seneca Park are mostly middle-aged: Genny C. is 41, Lilac is 40, and Moki and Chana are both 36. In the wild these females would be in the prime of their lives, reproducing and raising their young, and acting as vital, strong members of their families and herds.

The idea that elephants are “geriatric” while still in their 30s or 40s is misleading. Inadequate captive conditions cause maladies like lameness, joint disease, and arthritis, which are normally associated with old age in humans. Zoos intentionally misuse terms like “senior,” “elderly,” and “geriatric” to deflect the fact that captivity cripples and kills elephants prematurely. According to one report, half of elephants in U.S. zoos die by age 23, only about a third of their expected life span of 65 to 70 years, despite the provision of veterinary treatment, food and water.

Seneca Park Zoo's attempts to make up for the impoverished existence in captivity by adding a dog illustrates the Zoo's ignorance of what a more “natural” physical and social environment should be for elephants. Pairing a dog with elephants as a way to improve welfare is ill-advised. We suggest that the Zoo visit a GFAS-accredited sanctuary to see how elephants can truly live a more natural life immersed in nature with room to roam, with the companionship of other elephants – and then send their elephants there. 


10. Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

"Africa on Ice - An Elephant-Sized Mistake"

The Milwaukee County Zoo is spending millions of dollars on unnatural exhibit to imprison African elephants Ruth and Brittany. 
Credit: Milwaukee County Zoo/Facebook

The Milwaukee County Zoo is spending $25 million to expand “Adventure Africa” – an elephant exhibit that is as far away from Africa as you can get, especially in terms of climate. If the Zoo were truly interested in conservation, it would close its elephant exhibit, send African elephants Ruth and Brittany to a warm weather sanctuary, and support real conservation efforts in the wild. To be true elephants, they need to live in their native ecosystems where they have evolved over millennia - not in “Africa on Ice” in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee experiences numbingly cold temperatures during its long winters, making it completely unsuitable for elephants. A small "semi-heated outdoor area" for the elephants to use during the brutal winter is a pathetic concession that will utterly fail to satisfy the elephants' innate need to roam.

Elephants in the wild are active for up to 20 hours a day, and their bodies are designed to walk long distances. When deprived of space and healthy movement, elephants develop often-lethal foot disease and arthritis, the leading causes of death for elephants in captivity. Still, zoos do not hesitate to force elephants to survive in cold weather regions where they are confined most of the winter inside small barns.

With callous disregard, the Milwaukee Zoo plans to bring three to five more elephants into this unnatural environment, without explaining where it plans to get them. It is widely recognized that there is a declining number of elephants in zoos, leading several zoos to end their elephant programs, or capture and kidnap more from the wild.

In Defense of Animals is concerned that the Milwaukee County Zoo may be planning to kidnap elephant calves from their families in the wild, as other zoos have done, in order to populate its expensive new exhibit. Importing wild-caught elephants is a cruel practice that does nothing for conservation, while causing a lifetime of misery for the elephants who have forever lost their families, homes, and freedom. The best outcome here would be repurposing Milwaukee Zoo's Africa on Ice exhibit, sending the elephants to a GFAS-accredited sanctuary, and putting an end to this elephant-sized mistake!

Hall of Shame

Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

"Entertainment Is Not Conservation"

Forcing elephants to do circus tricks does not contribute to conservation - yet Oregon Zoo continues to perpetuate this myth.
Credit: FOZE

Forcing an elephant to sit up on his hind legs in a classic circus pose for applause does not contribute to the conservation of the species. Someone needs to tell that to the Oregon Zoo.

The Oregon Zoo attracts customers with a "Happy Hour" summertime show that features different animal species. One show shockingly featured a bull elephant who was made to sit up on his hind legs, as well as to kneel with his back legs folded underneath him. You would expect this kind of undignified display from a circus, but not a so-called "modern" zoo.

In Defense of Animals is very concerned about the training required for these circus-style tricks and what may be going on behind closed doors. The Oregon Zoo stubbornly clings to the bullhook – an outdated and inhumane weapon that has no place in contemporary elephant management. It is also at the center of the coercive methods typically used to force an elephant to perform a physically challenging trick. The device leaves a psychological scar so deep that just the sight of a bullhook – or a device that looks similar enough to one – will cause an elephant previously disciplined with this weapon to respond out of fear.

The tricks this bull was made to perform have nothing to do with natural elephant behavior and they send the message that it’s okay to use elephants for entertainment. Science has already shown that displaying an endangered species in an entertainment context negatively affects public perception of their endangered status.

In addition to its elephant show, Oregon Zoo offers a private "Elephant Encounter" that costs a whopping $150.00 for twenty minutes. This pricey tour includes a selfie with wild-born 25-year-old Chendra, the only Borneo Pygmy elephant in North America. Even Instagram flags wild animal selfies with animal abuse warnings, showing just how tone deaf Oregon Zoo is!
Lily, the youngest member of the herd, died before her sixth birthday this year due to an onset of a strain of herpes virus (EEHV), a commonly fatal killer of Asian elephants calves in captivity.

This is the ninth time the Oregon Zoo has made In Defense of Animals' 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list, more times than any other zoo. And for this, Oregon Zoo is this year inducted into our Hall of Shame category. In Defense of Animals calls on the Oregon Zoo to quit its sham conservation act, give up their bullhooks, and stop turning this zoo into a circus.


Dishonorable Mention:

Wild Adventures Theme Park, Valdosta, Georgia

"Seven Decades of Sickening Servitude"

Shirley was passed from circus to circus for 46 years, ending up at the Wild Adventures Theme Park where she lives solitary confinement.
Credit: Wild Adventures

Asian elephant Shirley was born in 1944 in Sri Lanka, where she was captured as a baby. Shipped off to America, she was sold into seven decades of servitude, first in circuses and later in a zoo.

For 46 years, Shirley was passed from circus to circus – nearly ten of them – including the infamous Ringling Brothers Circus, and forced to perform in two films. Shirley eventually ended up at the Wild Adventures Theme Park in Georgia 24 years ago and has remained there ever since.

Four other elephants who managed to survive circuses lived at Wild Adventures with Shirley until their deaths. The last elephant, Queenie, died in 2011. Shirley has been a solitary elephant for seven years now - a crushing sentence for an animal who depends on the companionship and comfort of other elephants. She is currently the oldest living Asian elephant in captivity on record in North America. The cause for her longevity is a sad mystery, given her hellish life.

It appears that Wild Adventures aims to profit off Shirley's back until her very last breath, rather than retire her to a sanctuary accredited by the GFAS/Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries that could provide this rare elephant elder with the life she deserves. Wild Adventures Theme Park, Valdosta, Georgia receives In Defense of Animals' Dishonourable Mention this year for its refusal to grant Shirley the dignity she deserves - especially in this last phase of her life.

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