10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2021

10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2021

Elephants home

Even the “Best” Zoos Damage Elephant Brains


In choosing the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America for 2021, we focused on those that are considered the best by industry standards. Accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), and the Canadian equivalent (CAZA), is the gold standard for zoos. Yet this gold standard overwhelmingly fails to provide “the highest quality of elephant management and care” claimed by the AZA. Instead of “excellent overall elephant well being,” our review uncovers a catalog of elephant suffering and even markers of captivity-caused brain damage at AZA and CAZA institutions.

For 17 years, In Defense of Animals has exposed the detrimental effects of zoo captivity on elephants’ physical and emotional health. This year we are incorporating findings from a new study that reveals how captive environments affect the elephant brain. This summary by Bob Jacobs, Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado College, delivers a damning conclusion: zoo habitats cause brain damage.

Zoo captivity damages elephant brains. There’s a vast gap between the rich environment nature provides for elephants’ thoughtful brains versus zoo captivity, which is impoverished and robs elephants of their social, mental, and neural needs. Decades of neuroscience research shows that an impoverished brain is a damaged brain. Whether it is the 10 Worst Zoos or the ten best, all zoos are detrimental to elephants’ brains and cause physical and mental suffering.

— Bob Jacobs, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado College and lead author of Putative neural consequences of captivity for elephants and cetaceans


“Neural Cruelty” — Captivity Causes Elephant Brain Damage

Let’s consider the example of Lucy, held captive at the #1 Worst Zoo for 2021, Edmonton Valley Zoo. She lacks companionship, suffers from the harsh Canadian climate, a tiny yard, months indoors on cement flooring, plus a poor diet and lack of exercise, which all clearly harm her health and well-being. But how do these deprived conditions impact the neural transmitters in Lucy’s brain?

Dr. Jacobs says captive elephant exhibits create “neural cruelty.” In Defense of Animals has found evidence of neural cruelty in every zoo on this year’s list — and in every zoo with elephants to various degrees. 

Dr. Jacobs explains, “Captivity traps animals with almost no control over their environment. These situations foster learned helplessness, negatively impacting the hippocampus, which handles memory functions, and the amygdala, which processes emotions.” He further states, “In their native habitats these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from 5 to 30 miles per day. In a zoo, they average three miles daily, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. The repetitive stereotypic behaviors that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin. This impairs the indirect pathway’s ability to modulate movement.”

In short, there are no good zoos for elephants. All zoos restrain these giant, complex animals through a lack of space and freedom of choice that all far-roaming animals require for their mental and physical health. This year’s list highlights that even zoos deemed to be the very best are failing elephants’ bodies, minds, and spirits.

Even Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the AZA, admits, “There is always that element of choice that gets removed from them in a captive environment. That’s undeniable.”

The areas that zoos provide elephants are too small for a family of meerkats, let alone elephants. In human terms, the captive enclosure for elephants would be equivalent to a small family of humans living their entire life in a bathroom. Every qualified researcher on the planet agrees: no zoo environment is large enough or rich enough for the complex needs of elephants.

— Les O’Brien, former elephant keeper and renowned elephant consultant at Palladium Elephant Consulting

Twenty-eight AZA zoos have already closed or have pledged to close their elephant exhibits. In Defense of Animals is working to phase out the elephant displays of all of the zoos on this list, and all zoos everywhere. As a society, we must recognize that we have no business imprisoning these sensitive, emotional, and highly intelligent beings in zoos.


Celebrity Support To Release Elephants From 10 Worst Zoos


Elephants are sensitive, emotional, and highly intelligent beings — seeing them suffer mentally and physically behind bars is heartbreaking.


Join me and stand with In Defense of Animals against the captivity of elephants in zoos.


I personally urge all zoos on the 10 Worst Zoos list to urgently retire elephants to accredited sanctuaries so they may live their lives with dignity.


In Defense of Animals is thrilled to have the support of Ricky Gervais and Moby. These celebrity animal advocates are calling for all elephants in exhibits shamed on the 10 Worst Zoos list to be released to accredited sanctuaries where they can live a more natural life.

I always felt bad seeing sad animals in zoos, but I had no idea that zoos cause brain damage to elephants.


The list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants is a shocking alarm call exposing how elephants are suffering and dying. Zoos fail to meet elephants’ unique needs because it’s impossible to replicate their natural living environments.


I stand with In Defense of Animals against the captivity of elephants in zoos and call for all elephants on the 10 Worst Zoos list to be retired to accredited sanctuaries where they can live in peace, out of the public eye.


10 Worst Zoos 2021:
  1. Edmonton Valley Zoo, City of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  2. ABQ BioPark, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  3. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio
  4. Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona
  5. Bronx Zoo, The Bronx, New York
  6. Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  7. Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, Toledo, Ohio
  8. Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles, California
  9. Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California
  10. Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana

Hall of Shame: The Preserve, Fredericksburg, Texas

Dishonorable Mention: Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

2021 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America

#1 Worst Zoo - Edmonton Valley Zoo, City of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Frozen Elephant Prison for One

Lonely Lucy is subjected to isolation and sub-zero temperatures at Edmonton Valley Zoo which are likely causing her brain damage. Photo: Lucy’s Edmonton Advocacy Project

Edmonton Valley Zoo resides in the far northwest reaches of Canada, where winter temperatures dip to well below freezing. That fact alone provides reason enough why this zoo is on the list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants for the 10th time. In addition, it ticks off every single box of deprived conditions, making Edmonton Valley Zoo the number one worst zoo for 2021. 

Lucy, the zoo’s only elephant captive, was born free in Sri Lanka in 1975 and captured aged two. After a series of abusive transfers and unsuccessful breeding loans to the Calgary Zoo, Lucy was shipped back to Edmonton Valley Zoo for a final time in 1988, where she has stayed for the last 34 years.

For 18 years, she had the company of Samantha, a young African elephant. But in 2007, 19-year-old Samantha was transported to the North Carolina Zoo for breeding, never to return. Lucy has been alone for 15 years. 

Elephants are highly social, and females like Lucy live in their family herd their whole lives. Lucy’s isolation violates CAZA standards requiring zoos to keep at least three elephants. Instead of resolving the cruelty, CAZA has granted a variance to the zoo.

The zoo has no pachyderm expert on staff and has resisted offers for an independent elephant veterinarian to examine Lucy. Her medical records reveal years of pain. She is overweight, suffers from arthritis, malformed teeth, a very painful condition called Uterine Leiomyomas, colic, poor mobility on her left side, foot disease with pus-filled lesions, and severe respiratory issues. When alone, she exhibits signs of zoochosis — a stereotypical, repetitive shifting of her weight.

Lucy suffers debilitating foot issues due to her living situation and related health issues. Photo: Lucy’s Edmonton Advocacy Project

Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment physically damages elephants’ brains. Psychologically, Lucy is deprived of everything an elephant needs to be healthy and happy.

Edmonton’s long winters force Lucy to spend 3/4 of her life inside her concrete barn, with nothing but a sand pile for entertainment. When the staff goes home for the day, Lucy is isolated and vulnerable for up to 12 hours. Should she go down and be unable to rise, she could lie in agony for up to half a day. 

On January 1st, 2021, the Edmonton Valley Zoo added insult to injury when a furnace went out and the temperature dropped to 14F. Despite a recommendation by Charles Gray, Superintendent of Elephants at African Lion Safari, to install a year-round bathing pool inside a heated structure, and a recent approval from the city to spend $50 million for other zoo improvements, no upgrades have been announced for Lucy’s enclosure.

Outdoors, Lucy has access to a half-acre yard. It meets CAZA standards, but is far from enough room for even one elephant. The keepers walk her outside her enclosure in blistering heat and frigid winter. Dangerous “free contact” is employed, with Lucy controlled by the threat of a bullhook — a weapon so cruel it is banned by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

But there’s some hope. In March, Cher joined in the fight for Lucy, and a feature-length documentary exposing Lucy’s plight is in production. Some members of the newly-elected City Council have expressed support for Lucy being retired to a sanctuary, and a recent poll showed that 2/3 of the citizens support the relocation of Lucy if it’s deemed safe by experts to do so.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s condition continues to deteriorate. 2022 marks Lucy’s 45th anniversary of captive suffering. How many more 30 below winters will she survive before succumbing to any of her many illnesses and conditions? Lucy’s story is a clarion call to once and for all end the cruel practice of confining elephants in zoos.



#2 Worst Zoo - ABQ BioPark, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Doubling Down on Dead Baby Elephants

Every baby elephant born at ABQ BioPark Zoo in the past decade has died. Thorn & Jazmine are the latest victims of the zoo’s brutal breeding program. Photos: Instagram/ABQ BioPark

ABQ BioPark boasts of its expertise in disease control, yet this winter, a well-known deadly virus claimed the lives of two baby elephants. Three-year-old Thorn died on Christmas day 2021; Jazmine succumbed to the same virus one week later. She was just eight years old. It dealt a double blow to their mother Rozie, an Asian elephant who has been impregnated multiple times over the years, only to suffer the heartache of repeated baby deaths.

In 2009, the zoo celebrated the birth of Rozie’s first baby, Daizy. A 2012 “Daizy Diagnostics Lab” video boasted that Daizy had “become a model of how to counteract the threat of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) in a captive herd.” Sadly, the zoo’s belief that it could protect a baby elephant from this disease proved to be nothing more than optimism and misplaced confidence. Just two years later, Daizy died from EEHV. Almost a decade later, EEHV claimed the lives of her little brother and sister.

Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the AZA, released a statement following the deaths of Thorn and Jazmine. He said, “While it does not make the sting of their deaths any less, what we learned during their treatments will help advance our overall knowledge of EEHV treatment efforts.”

It has been more than a quarter of a century since this disease was first documented. How many more baby elephants have to die before the AZA stops claiming that we can find solace in the horror of each death?  

The births of “charismatic megafauna” species like elephants are widely advertised and celebrated by zoos. Adorable babies are irresistible to the public and send ticket sales soaring. Financial motivations drive zoos like ABQ BioPark to pursue doomed breeding programs despite the high toll paid by elephants. Zoos have a shocking 40% infant elephant mortality rate — triple that of wild-born elephants.

ABQ BioPark Director Stephanie Stowell stated that “the goal of this program has been to produce calves.” The deaths of all three of Rozie’s babies have not caused the zoo to reconsider its goal. On the contrary, Stowell said, “If nothing else, it just doubles down our commitment to that. We remain committed to being a breeding facility for Asian elephants. We look forward to raising more calves in the future.”

Perhaps in 2012, ABQ BioPark genuinely believed it could beat the odds and keep baby elephants healthy. However, in the decade since the zoo made that claim, EEHV has killed every baby elephant born at the zoo. It is unjustifiable and terribly irresponsible for ABQ BioPark to keep breeding captive baby elephants without being able to protect them.

Zoo breeding programs like the one at ABQ BioPark cannot even replace adult elephants, let alone those who die in infancy. Instead of breeding imprisoned babies to boost ticket sales, money and effort should be spent preserving wild elephants in their natural habitats.

In 2021, the zoo made its financial priorities clear. ABQ BioPark spent millions of dollars on a park-wide upgrade, yet keepers have admitted that none of the “upgrades” benefit the elephants. Visitors will get a new observation deck with a better view of the elephants. The elephants will remain in the same barren yard. Despite zoo-provided “enrichment,” the elephants have little to keep them occupied compared with the life they’d enjoy in the wild. Their drab enclosure sits next to a busy highway, constantly barraged by traffic sounds. Such noises and vibrations are highly unnatural to elephants whose acute hearing and sensitive feet enable them to detect sounds and communicate over vast distances.

In Defense of Animals’ investigator observed stereotypic pacing and swaying behavior in the elephants, indicating they are bored and frustrated in their impoverished environment. This behavior is indicative of brain damage, as explained in a new study.

This is the zoo’s first appearance on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. If ABQ BioPark is “at the forefront of elephant research and care” as the City of Albuquerque claims, it is a sad testament to the desperate plight of elephants imprisoned in AZA zoos across the U.S.

#3 Worst Zoo - Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio

Elephant Pressure Cooker

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s cramped elephant exhibit is causing unbearable suffering and some of the worst bullying and stress-behaviors ever documented in zoo elephants. Photo: In Defense of Animals

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has four captive Asian elephants crammed into an unbearably small one-acre space. In Defense of Animals documented severe aggression and suffering at this zoo. Instead of addressing the elephants’ frustration, the zoo plans to bring in four more elephants and breed even more babies, housing up to 12 elephants in an expanded five-acre exhibit. The development will stress animals with three years of construction noise and leave them barely better off. Whether they each get a quarter acre or a half, it’s a ludicrously small space for an elephant. It’s only a matter of time before this elephant pressure cooker turns into tragedy.


On a frigid February morning, an In Defense of Animals investigator documented three females exhibiting pronounced stereotypical behavior and aggression. One elephant grabbed onto another one’s tail and violently forced her to move. A third elephant bashed her head repeatedly into a closed barn door, causing a very harsh, loud noise to reverberate around the metal and concrete facility.

The bullying displayed by the three elephants inside this facility was the worst our In Defense of Animals investigator has seen in ten years of documenting captive elephants. It is certainly not playing behavior, but extreme bullying resulting from sharing such a small space with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Elephants are naturally adapted to roam vast areas. Captive confinement in zoos causes deadly diseases to elephants, and now we know that it damages their brains. One retired zoo official has even admitted elephants need at least 100 acres. Despite a mountain of scientific evidence and catalog of premature deaths of captive elephants, AZA standards require just 5,400 square feet of space per elephant — the size of two basketball courts.

The cost so far for minimally improving the new elephant habitat is a staggering $50 million, which is part of the zoo’s $150 million “More Home to Roam” development. That money would fund vast preserves in Africa for hundreds of elephants, for eternity. The Cincinnati Zoo elephants will endure three more years of frustration and bullying in severely cramped quarters to get just a little more space. 

Two young adult females and two calves will be forced into the new exhibit. They will be ripped from their companions to endure a grueling and dangerous journey from the Dublin Zoo in Ireland. Cruel separations like this one traumatize elephants. Although wild female elephants never leave their herds, transfer abuse is common in the zoo industry. The relocation of elephants to Cincinnati Zoo is very cruel and likely to cause transfer trauma to the elephants.

Given the zoo’s breeding ambitions, the females will presumably be bred with Sabu, the lone male. Sabu has previously been farmed out to other zoos for breeding and had two babies, both now dead. Ganesh died at seven at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and Nisha, born at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri, died a few months after her first birthday. Both succumbed to EEHV. This disease is rarely seen in the wild but kills many young elephants in zoos.

All the Cincinnati elephants except one were born in the wild, taken when young from their mothers, and shipped across the world to live in U.S. zoos. Since then, they have never had the chance to live like real elephants. Wild matriarchal herds roam for many miles a day, forage on trees, roots, and grasses, choose who to mate with, who to socialize with, and where to explore — all of which is essential to keep elephants healthy. Zoos take elephants from the wild and confine them for life. Because elephants die faster in captivity than they can reproduce, zoos hasten the extinction of elephants in the wild, while failing to stop human destruction of native elephant habitats.

We challenge the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden to halt its failed breeding program and close its elephant exhibit as 28 AZA zoos have done or plan to do. This year marks Cincinnati Zoo’s debut on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. It will be the zoos only appearance if it diverts its massive development fund to send its elephants to an accredited sanctuary where they will truly have room to roam.



#4 Worst Zoo - Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona

Boiling, Bored & All Alone

Indu is alone and isolated at the Phoenix Zoo, suffering from a tiny enclosure and lack of socialization. Photo: In Defense of Animals.

This is the first time the Phoenix Zoo appears on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. It opened in 1962 and is the largest privately owned zoo in the United States. Approaching the small, barren elephant yard (which is divided into two sections), visitors will find 57-year-old Indu, the zoo’s lone Asian elephant. The meager yard is currently divided between Indu and a male rhinoceros, who are rotated between the two sides. In addition to the small size of the elephant enclosure, temperatures in Phoenix can reach 120 degrees in summer and there is not enough deep shade in the exhibit to allow them an opportunity to escape the heat. There is only a small water trough in the area where Indu resides, rather than a pool. The trough does not allow her the opportunity to submerge herself to cool off.

In such a limited space, there's hardly enough room for elephants. Yet it wasn’t until October 2019, a completed expansion of the elephant exhibit made it more than double the original size, which means that it was extremely undersized for all of the previous years. A new study released in 2021 shows how captivity in zoos causes brain damage to elephants like Indu. According to study author Dr. Bob Jacobs, Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado College, “Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal’s stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with almost no control over their environment.”

It’s no surprise that after 21 years at this zoo, Sheena died at age 50 in late November 2021, with the typical physical afflictions caused by life in an undersized and restricted display. For years she suffered from chronic osteoarthritis and gastrointestinal issues. Sheena's keepers found her “laying down in her barn, unable to get up one morning, and she died shortly after that,” according to a news release from the zoo. Elephants in the wild are still having calves at 50 years old and living far longer.

Sheena came to the Phoenix Zoo in 2000 from the Ringling Brothers elephant center. She lived near Indu and Reba, who died at the very end of March 2020 at age 51. Reba was euthanized following an irreversible decline in her health after many years of treatments for arthritis and inflammation. Prior to her death, she had displayed seriously decreased activity and mobility levels, and increasing levels of discomfort.

While Asian elephants typically live in herds, the Phoenix Zoo’s former three female elephants came from different backgrounds and apparently preferred to live in separate habitats, meaning that their incompatibility never allowed them each full access to the already limited enclosure. Elephants are highly social animals with complex social systems. They should be able to form bonds and social structures based on their interests and compatibility preferences, which they are unable to do in a confined zoo habitat.

Phoenix Zoo has not made any public plans to acquire another elephant and In Defense of Animals urges the zoo to commit to permanently closing its elephant exhibit. Furthemore, Indu, who is alone and isolated, should be released to an accredited sanctuary where she can live out her days in a much larger, peaceful setting, with the opportunity to form social bonds with other elephants.


#5 Worst Zoo - Bronx Zoo, The Bronx, New York

Elephants Have a Right To Be Happy

Happy reaches for grass and freedom just beyond the bounds of the Bronx Zoo elephant enclosure. Photo: Gigi Glendinning

This is the 10th time the Bronx Zoo has made the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. The reason can be summed up by Happy’s unhappy story, which is now making headlines worldwide, in an historic first-ever court battle for elephant rights.

In October 2018, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a petition for a common-law writ of habeas corpus in the New York Supreme Court, Orleans County, demanding recognition of Happy’s legal personhood and fundamental right to bodily liberty and her release to an elephant sanctuary.

What is the best situation for a half-century-old elephant to live out her golden years? Certainly not dividing her time between cramped indoor quarters and a half-acre outdoor enclosure, separated by a barrier from another elephant. Sadly, this is an upgrade from Happy’s previous life at the Bronx Zoo, where she was kept indoors most of the time so the other two elephants, Patty and Maxine, could be displayed for public entertainment.

Happy was traumatized by witnessing the brutal attack and killing of her friend Grumpy by Patty and Maxine. Her vital need for social companionship has been entirely and insensitively brushed aside by the zoo ever since. Happy was not separated because she “can’t be with other elephants,” and “she does not get along with them,” yet these false claims were made in a recent Animal Planet show.

Happy and Grumpy were born in 1971 in Thailand and brought to the Bronx Zoo in 1973. They lived together until the fatal attack on Grumpy, who was euthanized by the zoo in 2002. Happy was kept separated from the other two for safety reasons. Since then, she has been forced to live mostly in solitary confinement indoors, due to the bitterly cold New York winters, or because the other elephants were used in the outdoor enclosure to draw the crowds to the zoo. Lack of space, social companions, and proper climate all lead to stress-causing brain damage in elephants.

The zoo brought in a young elephant, Sammie, to be with Happy, and it worked out well until Sammie was euthanized due to kidney failure in 2005. The deaths of her friends and her subsequent loneliness have caused Happy to suffer greatly. A study in 2006 reported that Happy successfully passed the mirror self-recognition test. Happy proved that elephants are not only vastly intelligent but also self-aware, which is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Happy’s reward for her contribution to science has been 16 years of solitary confinement in which she is poignantly self-aware of her own bleak and lonely existence.

Right after Sammie’s death and the publication of the self-awareness study, the Bronx Zoo announced plans to close the elephant exhibit when one or more of the inhabitants died. Since that announcement, Maxine died in 2018. The slightly over 1-acre outdoor enclosure was split in half with barriers, so both Patty and Happy can be outside at the same time. But so far, no steps have been taken to make good on the promise to close the elephant exhibit.

According to AZA standards, each zoo with elephants must have a minimum of three females (or the space to have three females), two males, or three elephants of mixed gender. Bronx Zoo fails to meet these bare-minimum requirements for elephant wellbeing.

The slightly over one acre outdoor enclosure was split in half with barriers, so both Patty and Happy can be outside at the same time safely. It remains to be seen what the result of the court challenge will be, but Happy’s sad plight is a wake-up call that elephants suffer tremendously in zoos. Happy deserves the right to happiness and freedom at an accredited sanctuary.


#6 Worst Zoo - Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Deprivation, Disease & Death

A skinny-looking bull elephant hints at the disease, deaths, bullying, and brain damage suffered at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Photo: In Defense of Animals

This is the fourth time the Oklahoma City Zoo has made the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. Six Asian elephants currently suffer exceptionally small enclosures, disease outbreaks, deaths, bullying, and show signs of brain damage.

Due to their tiny exhibit, the elephants experience an increased risk of contracting and spreading infections, including deadly strains of EEHV. All the elephants tested positive numerous times over five months, from June to October 2021. In August 2021, two-year-old Kai was treated for the virus after becoming very ill. Kai’s half-sister, Malee, the first Asian elephant born at the zoo, died in 2015 at the age of four due to an infection of EEHV1A.

Instead of stopping its breeding program, the zoo bought a machine to test the elephants’ blood for the highly-transmissible virus, which is a major killer of young elephants in zoos.

The zoo claims that it has 9 acres for the elephants. However, the four females are housed in its largest outdoor yard, which is just 2.6 acres. There are two separate bull yards, one for each male elephant, and each one is smaller than the yard the four females share. Asian elephants can walk up to 50 miles a day, which they are deprived of within this small space. Even though it meets AZA space standards, it falls far below what elephants need.

In January 2022, an In Defense of Animals investigator observed a skinny-looking, isolated, and agitated male elephant pacing between the fencing and a door in one small section of the enclosure.

Recent medical records for bull elephant, Rex, indicate a litany of severe problems such as abscesses, cataracts, and degenerative arthritis.

37-year-old Chai was sent to the zoo from Seattle with Bamboo. She died within a year of her arrival there, likely due in no small measure to her many years of stress endured at the Seattle Zoo, including 117 attempts to inseminate her.

Bamboo was transferred to Oklahoma City Zoo from Woodland Park Zoo in 2015. Over her years at her new zoo, she has decreased her use of the habitat. In addition, zoo records show that Bamboo has been attacked by the other elephants at Oklahoma City Zoo. One bite to her tail, described as an “amputation,” severed the tip and took months to heal. 

A Quality of Life Assessment documented by the zoo in July 2021 indicated that Bamboo moves at a very slow pace and shows signs of stiffness when stretching, laying down, and getting back to her feet. Her recent medical records reveal a host of serious issues, including abscesses and degenerative joint disease. Bamboo displays stereotypical behaviors such as grabbing and holding her bottom lip with her trunk. These are signs of damage to her brain, a problem endemic to all elephants in zoos.

Despite the documented spread of EEHV and development of stereotypical behaviors, the zoo continues to breed elephants for profit. In January 2022, Asha gave birth to a male calf, Rama. He will likely endure the same conditions at the zoo, or be transferred to another facility.

The Oklahoma City Zoo has rejected calls to relocate the elephants to sanctuary, stating, “Frankly, we are experts in what we do and we are experts in the care and well being of elephants.” Oklahoma City’s Zoo’s own medical records reveal they are only experts in elephant mistreatment. The Oklahoma elephants should be retired to an accredited sanctuary immediately.


#7 Worst Zoo - Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, Toledo, Ohio

Ripping Families Apart for Profit

Renee (right) at Toledo Zoo & Aquarium has endured the loss of all her calves through traumatic transfer or death, including Louie and Lucas. Photos: ToledoBlade.com, Instagram/thetoledozoo, In Defense of Animals

The Toledo Zoo & Aquarium makes the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for the second time. It has facilitated an elephant breeding program which is responsible for the callous separation of families that would never occur in the wild, trafficking elephants from place to place, often multiple times. This unique cruelty is rife in zoos, even though it can cause significant trauma — both for elephants moved and those left behind.

Louie, an African elephant who was born at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium in 2003, is a prime example of a transfer abuse victim. In 2017, Louie was sent to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was forced into its breeding program. Louie was transferred again to the North Carolina Zoo in June 2021, where he will once again be used to produce captive offspring for profits.

Transfers are known to cause stress to elephants, and scientific research associates them with repetitive stereotypic behaviors known as “zoochosis.” Zoochosis is a result of the chronic stress elephants experience in captivity, which is exhibited by behaviors such as head-bobbing and swaying, and is not seen in wild elephants; it is also an indication of brain damage. This behavior was observed by an In Defense of Animals investigator who also noted a loud echo reverberating inside the metal and concrete-floored indoor facility of the elephant exhibit. One of many factors that contribute to stress in captive elephants is noise pollution. 

Louie’s brother, Lucas, was born at the zoo as part of its breeding program in 2011. When Lucas was just 9 years old, his life was cut drastically short after contracting EEHV in April 2021, which is a highly-transmissible, deadly disease. “Hopefully Lucas’ loss will mean a brighter future for other young elephants in the country,” said Jeff Sailer, President/CEO, Toledo Zoo & Aquarium.

Despite all the EEHV deaths, zoos continue to recklessly breed more elephants, and a future of a lifetime in confinement is far from bright. Zoos accredited by the AZA are required to participate in the Species Survival Program in attempts to increase the number of elephants in zoos, as elephants are dying out faster than they can be born, and zoos are desperate to breed more to make up for all the deaths.

Renee, the mother of Louie and Lucas, still resides at the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium. She has endured the disappearance of Louie when he was transferred and the death of her son Lucas after succumbing to EEHV. Renee now lives with one other female elephant named Twiggy.

In the wild, African elephants can live up to 70 years and form multi-generational herds consisting of related females and their young. While young males leave these herds and strike out on their own, they’re also known to form bonds and bachelor groups and seek guidance from older bulls. The traumatic cycle of breeding and transfers has denied this opportunity to all of the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium elephants, both past and present.


#8 Worst Zoo - Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles, California

Far From “One of the Best” for Elephants

Lone male elephant Billy is still not thriving, happy, or content in his too-small enclosure at the Los Angeles Zoo. Photo: Elephant Guardians Los Angeles

2021 marks the 7th time the Los Angeles Zoo has made the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. In 2010, the LA Zoo expanded its elephant habitat, but it has made little difference to the elephants. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John L Segal said during a 2012 trial that accused the zoo of mistreatment of its elephants: “The Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo is not a happy place for elephants, nor is it for members of the public who go to the zoo and recognize that the elephants are neither thriving, happy, nor content.”

This harsh criticism sums up the life of the lone male Asian elephant Billy, who has been at the zoo since 1989 when he was shipped from Malaysia at four years old, and the other three elderly Asian females Tina, Jewell and Shaunzi, who endured years in circuses before coming to the zoo.

The Elephants of Asia exhibit is now 6.5 acres, yet only a little over 3 acres is accessible to the elephants. Shockingly, this is often the case with “expanded” elephant exhibits which promote a bigger space but deliver much less. And insufficient though it is, this space exceeds the paltry AZA standards of 5,400 sq feet per elephant. None of the elephant yards are more than one acre. Billy is moved between the small corrals separated by metal gates and fencing. Sickeningly, the trees and vegetation are wrapped with electric wires to prevent the elephants from reaching them. It’s now been shown in scientific studies that lack of space and choice leads to brain damage.

AZA standards require that all elephants have access to shade when they are exposed to direct sunlight. On July 22, 2016, Billy was observed standing in the sun for at least 2 hours in order to eat his hay with no relief offered to him from the triple digit heat.

Billy has also been forced to endure a highly invasive procedure to collect his semen to artificially inseminate females in other zoos. He also exhibits almost continuous stereotypical behavior. This is a prime example of psychological damage as well as damage to the brain. Yet the zoo claims when Billy bobs his head, he is exhibiting “anticipatory” behavior. Judge Segal called this thinking “delusional.”

The three females don't fare much better. Tina and Jewell have a bond, but Shaunzi stands apart, isolated in her own world. There is little shade and the ground in all the yards is hard packed sand that can damage elephant feet because the sand is not rototilled as stipulated by Judge Segal and reported in the documentary “Free Billy”. The zoo counter sued after the 2012 trial and won on a technicality in a California Supreme Court, so apparently the zoo is not required to do so. The fact that the Los Angeles Zoo can brazenly claim its habitat is “one of the best in North America” says a lot about the low standards required for accreditation by the AZA.

Fortunately, this year, many animal rights advocates, including celebrities Cher and Lily Tomlin, along with a LA City Council member have renewed their efforts to relocate Billy to sanctuary, and PAWS sanctuary in Northern CA has agreed to take him, should the zoo be persuaded. The Los Angeles Zoo calls elephants “ambassadors for their species.” If Billy makes it to sanctuary, he can enjoy a new happier role as master of his own life.


#9 Worst Zoo - Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California

Zoo of Death

Male elephant Vusmusi stands behind a fence in a closed off area during a training session. He has seen many elephants die at Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Photo: In Defense of Animals

This is the first time the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is named one of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants. This zoo epitomizes the saying that elephants don’t live in zoos, they die in zoos. The Fresno elephants have suffered abusive transfers and kidnapping from the wild. A new study reveals their zoo captivity is likely to have caused brain damage.

Three elephants died at Fresno Chaffee Zoo between 2017 and 2019, all from zoo-related diseases or conditions. Amy, 30, was killed after tearing a ligament in her elbow which failed to heal; Kara, 42, died from painful osteoarthritis; and Amy’s daughter, Miss Betts, 12, passed away after suffering from an excruciatingly painful viral infection, EEHV.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo is a recipient of two of the “Stolen 18.” To evade an upcoming court challenge, these elephants were clandestinely ripped from their Swaziland home in the early hours of March 2016 and sent thousands of miles away to three U.S. zoos to serve as breeders.

27-year old Nolwazi and 12-year old Amahle were shipped to Fresno two years after arriving at the Dallas Zoo, breaking any bonds they had with the other Swaziland elephants. Shuffling elephants around for breeding is cruel but common practice for zoos following the AZA’s Species Survival Plan. 18-year old Vusmusi (Moose) was sent to Fresno from the San Diego Zoo when he was 11 years old, separating him from his friends and family in a traumatic process known as transfer abuse.

The stress of being torn from their homes, sent to unfamiliar environments, and forced to live in cramped quarters with strangers inflicts psychological and physical trauma, including brain damage.

The exhibit was remodeled in 2015. Although the zoo claims it is approximately 4 acres, the usable space outdoors for all three elephants is just 1.89 acres. Though meeting the standards of the AZA, this comes nowhere near to meeting the needs of elephants.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo must make the compassionate choice to send these elephants to an accredited sanctuary.


#10 Worst Zoo - Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana

Dwarf Display Causes Desperation & Drugging

Children observe an elephant in Audubon Zoo. The cramped exhibit is causing aggression and perhaps even brain damage. Photo: Instagram/auduboninstitute


The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans debuts on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants for the first time in 2021. It currently houses three female Asian elephants — Jean (age 50), Jothi (age 40), and Surapa (age 39). This exhibit is simply too small for elephants. Confinement in small quarters is causing the elephants a range of health and behavior problems. A new study released in 2021 prompts fresh concern for the Audubon Zoo elephants since lack of space may also be causing them brain damage.

When the expanded elephant exhibit debuted in 2016, the zoo referred to it as a “sprawling new elephant habitat.” But Audubon Zoo’s outdoor elephant area is just 42,000 square feet, which is not even one full acre. What’s more disturbing is that it is seven times the size of the former exhibit, which was initially only 6,000 square feet. Jean spent decades in a minuscule-sized enclosure. But soon after it was finally (and very belatedly) expanded, Audubon Zoo added Surapa and Jothi to the already cramped space.

The features the zoo boasts about are largely focused on human entertainment instead of the true needs of the elephants. The zoo created a viewing platform for visitors with a decorative awning “games and activities… and an iPad-based ‘video coloring book’ that can create elephant paintings.”

The elephants got a pool close to the water park so guests can “feel like they are splashing with the elephants.” A plexiglass partition separates a wading area for children and the elephants’ pool.

Despite the exhibit upgrade, the elephants are still suffering from a lack of space, which is leading to aggression. Audubon Zoo is drugging the elephants in a bid to avoid it. Medical records reveal that elephant foot care is not being looked after owing to COVID-caused staff shortages. Foot health is one of the leading causes of death for all captive elephants, especially those confined in an extra small space.

Audubon Zoo’s lack of space is causing aggression, health problems, and perhaps brain damage to Jean, Jothi, and Surapa. It’s time to shut down this cramped entertainment exhibit and relocate the elephants to an accredited sanctuary.


Hall of Shame:

The Preserve, Fredericksburg, Texas

Notorious California Elephant Abusers Rebranded in Texas

Elephants are forced to do circus-like tricks for audiences at sham sanctuary, The Preserve. Photo: In Defense of Animals

The Preserve in Fredericksburg, Texas, touts itself as a sanctuary-type environment, a preserve where elephants have the opportunity to live peacefully on remote land. However, the true picture is very different. The Preserve is owned by the proprietors of now-defunct Have Trunk Will Travel, a company notorious for exploiting and abusing elephants to rent out for rides, events and films in the entertainment industry. This switch to “sanctuary,” which functions like a zoo where visitors are allowed to have direct contact with elephants, qualifies The Preserve to be on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for the first time. And along with all zoos, The Preserve is contributing to elephant brain damage, as explained in this new study.

When the bullhook was banned in California in January 2018, owners Gary and Kari Johnson moved their operation to a remote area of Texas and renamed it The Preserve. They had five elephants, but two of them – Dixie (age 56) and Tai (age 55) died just three months apart, in February and May 2021, respectively.

Questions were raised over the disappearance and sudden death of Dixie, who appeared to be emaciated and lame. Like most other elephants used in traveling acts, Dixie was abducted from her mother and the wild as a baby. Exploited for Have Trunk Will Travel, she was carted around to fairs and other events, where she was forced to give rides and perform circus tricks for audiences.

The remaining three elephants are Rosie and Becky, who have been with the Johnson’s for 27 years, and Kitty, who has been with them for 31 years. The death of two elephants within a few months is reason enough to raise suspicion about this enterprise, and concerns about what is really going on behind the scenes. The answer is that these elephants have been deprived of the natural life that they deserve and are instead trained by cruel methods to perform tricks that the staff of The Preserve say is part of their “exercise routines” and provides “mental and physical stimulation.” Elephants do not need to perform tricks to prevent boredom, they need the natural stimulation their wild lives would provide.

One, among many negative Yelp reviews, states: “I have so much regret going here. This is not a preserve or an elephant sanctuary. Simply do a google search of the history of these people (Have Trunks Will Travel) and you will change your mind. The elephants are paraded in front of you and do countless tricks and performances and it is sold to you as ‘daily exercise’ and ‘mental stimulation’. These animals were taught these ‘tricks’ through negative reinforcement: stabbing with bull hooks, beating with rods, and shocks from tasers. I beg you not to spend your money here. I am a conservative, level-headed person and even I was able to see through the charade that was put on in the name of ‘conservation’. I hope these poor elephants are able to be rescued and given a life of peace.”

After the company moved to Texas and started The Preserve, Dixie and the other elephants were still under the threat of punishment with a bullhook during public interactions and displays such as bathing, painting, and tricks.

Texas elephant advocate Melinda Pharr states, “They cloak what they’re doing in conservation and talk about elephants being endangered, but they engage in practices that are not natural to an elephant’s behavior, like painting canvases, standing on their heads, and swaying with a hula hoop. I saw one of the elephants ordered to pick up a trainer with their trunk. It’s little more than a circus sideshow, and the trainers all have bullhooks in their hands.”

Unfortunately, many visitors have been duped by this fake sanctuary believing they are supporting a preserve where elephants live a natural, peaceful life but instead they are exploited in this circus-like operation. The Johnsons have a long history of abuses and USDA violations, yet their license to “own” these extraordinary animals has not been revoked. It is well past time for the remaining three elephants at The Preserve to be retired to an accredited sanctuary, where they can relax and enjoy their remaining years.



Dishonorable Mention:

Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

Putting the Con in Conservation

Chendra suffers potentially-deadly foot issues and shows signs of stress, boredom, and brain damage. Oregon Zoo has sent conservation money to Chendra’s corrupt and abusive former keepers in Malaysia. Photos: In Defense of Animals

This year marks the 11th time the Oregon Zoo has been on the list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, more than any other zoo. Like all AZA-accredited zoos, the Oregon Zoo has inadequate space for far-roaming elephants. Despite expanding its Asian elephant habitat to a little over four acres, the elephants still suffer from a myriad of zoo-related conditions and diseases. 

Chendra walks in circles, while Rose-Tu and Shine pace back and forth. In Defense of Animals documented these repetitive, stereotypical behaviors which indicate zoochosis — a sign of zoo-caused psychosis. It is caused by an imbalance of dopamine and serotonin and is a sign of brain damage.


Note: This video is sped up to provide a snapshot of the stereotypical behavior observed in the Oregon Zoo elephants.

All five Oregon Zoo elephants have varying degrees of captivity-related conditions, including chronic diarrhea, obesity, and assorted ear, eye, and leg injuries. They also suffer from toe fractures and foot disease, which proves deadly to many captive elephants via infection and abscesses.

Five elephants contracted tuberculosis over six years, starting in 2013. Six-year-old Lily died from the herpesvirus, EEHV in 2018. Despite these disease outbreaks, the Oregon Zoo continues its reckless breeding program.

The AZA recommended a new sand substrate, which the zoo added. But switching to sand cannot make up for the lack of room to roam, and so the elephants’ foot problems continue. Now the elephants have a new problem — ingesting the sand puts them in danger of intestinal blockages, which has proven fatal.

However, the biggest reason that the Oregon Zoo receives a dishonorable mention is its deceptive conservation message. In 2016, the zoo foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the Sabah Wildlife Rescue. This facility in Malaysia is where Chendra was kept until she was shipped to the Oregon Zoo at four years old on a breeding loan. In a video posted on YouTube in 2015, there is clear evidence of brutal elephant mistreatment by Sabah Wildlife Rescue staff. Former employees allege mismanagement of funds meant for wildlife conservation and rescue, veterinary staff unpaid or ill-equipped to do their job, and even mistreatment of animals by the assistant director, Dr. Nathan.


In addition, Sabah Wildlife Rescue has come under fire for the sexual harassment of its female employees. In October 2021, the Sabah government took action against Dr. Senthivel K.S.S. Nathan, stating that the assistant director’s actions had tarnished the reputation of the department and civil service. Dr. Nathan was suspended from his position. But it is still unclear if Oregon Zoo’s grant helped conserve any elephants or was instead “used lavishly on unnecessary and inappropriate expenses.” 

Former Sabah resident Chendra was offered retirement from Oregon Zoo to a sanctuary, but Dr. Nathan opposed the move in a public post. Dr. Nathan has done a great disservice to the elephants of Malaysia and to the Oregon Zoo’s lone Borneo elephant.

It’s hard to believe the Oregon Zoo is committed to its mission statement of creating a better future for wildlife while it funds animal abusers and fails the elephants in its care. Oregon Zoo seems to be doing everything possible to prevent a happy future for elephants at home and in the wild. At the very least, conservation funds should protect elephants from abuse, not fund it.


What You Can Do

Here's some of the ways you can take action for elephants...


Sign our alerts for elephants:



Become an elephant defender today:



You can support our work by donating