10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2022

10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2022

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The Big Lie Behind Bigger Elephant Exhibits


“Elephants evolved to live in spaces 1,000 to a million times bigger than even a large zoo enclosure of 10 hectares (24.7 acres).”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”

For this year's 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, In Defense of Animals is tackling a subject that may be difficult to comprehend. However, it is time to confront the perceived benefit of expanding exhibit space head-on.

For many years, zoos have touted new “state of the art” elephant exhibits, expanded to provide 3 or more times the space of their former enclosures. Zoos raise enormous amounts of money to make these expansions: $50 million for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and $58 million for the Oregon Zoo are just two recent examples. The sad fact is, expanding elephant enclosures wastes money and wastes elephant lives. It is time to expose the zoo space sham and realize the sooner we confront this reality, the sooner we can end the suffering of captive elephants.

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
— Carl Sagan

While added acres may seem like a lot to the casual observer, when you look deeper you see how little, if any, benefit it provides to far-roaming elephants. Elephants need miles to roam, not a few scant acres. The bodies and minds of Earth's largest land mammals have developed over centuries to walk vast distances, seeking water and foraging from scores of varied plant species. 

Elephants endure many deprivations in zoos, but the lack of sufficient space is a major contributor to their suffering, as testified to in this new study co-authored by renowned wildlife biologist Dr. Keith Lindsay.

Elephants suffer enormously in zoos from not being able to live the way they were born to live. Zoo captivity even causes brain damage, as we exposed on our 2021 list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants.

The Zoo Space Sham: More Space, More Elephants, More Problems

The road to hell is paved with good intentions
— Proverb

When a zoo expands its elephant space from 1 or 2 acres to 3 or 6 acres, or even 10 like the Tulsa Zoo, it simply increases the problems that elephants face in captivity. Often zoos expand exhibit space so they can import more elephants to the zoo, usually with a plan to breed more elephants. Room added in the expansion shrinks with every new elephant. Deceitful zoos are spending vast funds under the pretense of giving elephants more space… then stuff the exhibit with breeding elephants and their babies who draw in crowds, but die at a shocking rate.

Consider what a few acres is for an elephant. Les O’Brien, a former zoo elephant keeper comments, “that's like a family living in a room the size of a bathroom for their whole lives.”

Furthermore, expanding elephant exhibits does not save any elephants in the wild. Every elephant imported to a zoo or bred in a zoo lives their entire life in captivity. To imply otherwise is to obscure the truth. 

In light of this, what can zoos do to improve the lives of their elephant captives? Looking to sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries would be a good start. True elephant sanctuaries respect elephant autonomy, do not breed elephants or put them on public display, and provide hundreds or even thousands of acres for elephants to roam.

North American zoos with captive elephants fall significantly below true ethical sanctuary  standards. So the only way to truly invest in elephant wellbeing in zoos is:

  1. Stop breeding elephants — captive breeding is brutal to adults and deadly to infants.
  2. Stop importing elephants — from other zoos and certainly from the wild.
  3. Retire current captives to true ethical sanctuaries.
  4. Pledge to close elephant exhibits — many zoos around the world have retired their elephants and others have pledged to end confining elephants in their zoo once they die. 

In Defense of Animals encourages all zoos to follow in these progressive footsteps and end the horrific mental and physical suffering of elephants in zoos. 

The road to hell can be diverted to a heavenly path to elephant freedom.



Celebrity Support To Release Elephants From 10 Worst Zoos

Three high-profile celebrities are supporting In Defense of Animals' exposé of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2022. Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, and Jorja Fox have pledged their support to In Defense of Animals to end captivity for elephants in zoos. They join Ricky Gervais and Moby, who called for the release of all elephants from the 10 Worst Zoos of 2021.


"Elephants lead miserable lives in zoos, and larger exhibits won’t ease their suffering. These majestic animals don’t benefit in any way from being on public display. This list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants is truly alarming, and I stand with In Defense of Animals against the captivity of elephants in zoos."

Bill Maher

Comedian, Actor, and Television Host

“No animal wants to live in a cage. No animal should have to. Elephants have feelings and emotions. They feel love and loss. If you want to see an elephant, go to where they live. Watch documentaries about them. Learn all there is to know. But to put them in cages just for your amusement? That’s dark shit. Join me and stand with In Defense of Animals against the captivity of elephants in zoos.”

Sarah Silverman

Comedian, Actress, and Writer

“It’s dishonest of zoos to spend millions on expansions claiming more room for elephants, only to crowd more in. In Defense of Animals' list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants helps expose the shocking truth of elephants suffering in captivity.”

Jorja Fox

Actress and Producer


10 Worst Zoos 2022:
  1. Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
  2. Kansas City Zoo, Kansas City, Missouri
  3. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska
  4. Houston Zoo, Houston, Texas
  5. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas
  6. Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis, Indiana
  7. Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia
  8. Tulsa Zoo, Tulsa, Oklahoma
  9. Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas
  10. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hall of Shame: Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California

Dishonorable Mention: Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

2022 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America

#1 Worst Zoo - Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

More Injury and Trauma Despite More Space

Damaged from dangerous close encounters. Photo: In Defense of Animals

Oregon Zoo has the distinction of making the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for the twelfth time this year — more than any other zoo. A high number of deaths, outbreaks of disease, including tuberculosis, and risky breeding practices are just a few of the reasons. This year, the zoo vaults to the number one position because its newly expanded exhibit has failed to protect its elephants from the dangers of aggressive behavior.

The Oregon Zoo’s highly promoted 2015 expansion “Elephant Lands” has not made any significant improvement to the wellbeing of the zoo’s five Asian elephants. In fact, in terms of bullying, it may actually be worse. The outdoor area is around 3 acres, but elephants have been programmed for thousands of years to travel far and wide, covering many miles a day. They need vast amounts of space to avoid traumatic encounters, especially with males whose aggression is exacerbated during musth.

Locked out of paradise, trapped in a barren sandlot. Photo: In Defense of Animals

Oregon Zoo’s elephant exhibit is completely barren of any foliage, which elephants require. A 2021 zoo-funded study ridiculously claims the new exhibit offers “complexity” and opportunities to explore because they can’t see the other side of the exhibit, but an elephant can cross 2.47 acres in less than one minute. After seven years, it’s safe to conclude they have discovered everything there is to see. Perhaps worst of all, there is nowhere to go to experience any privacy or escape assaults from other bored and stressed elephants.

Chendra scrounging for food on the floor. Video: In Defense of Animals


The elephants’ medical records reveal an abrasion to Chendra’s eye from being repeatedly pushed against the metal feeders, possibly by Shine who has bullied her before. She has also been seen “sparring” with Samudra. Samson bit the end of Shine’s tail, resulting in a subsequent amputation. Risky placement of males and females together is no doubt due to the most recent breeding recommendations of the Species Survival Plan. This outlines plans to breed all five elephants, including Chendra, who suffered a miscarriage in 2019.

Life in the zoo is also extremely hard on the males. They have no way to express their natural urges and instincts. They are kept apart and isolated from other males. In the wild, males form bonds with other males. In captivity, their lives are just as stunted and sad as the females.

Begging for bananas to please the crowd. Photo: In Defense of Animals

“Space simply makes it possible for an elephant to maintain a comfortable distance… significantly reducing the likelihood of the sort of aggression and bullying that has led to the injuries and deaths seen in zoo compounds.”
— Dr. Atkinson and Dr. Lindsay

It is time for the Oregon Zoo to stop pretending that Elephant Lands is the solution to its elephant problem. In Defense of Animals calls for the zoo to immediately send the distressed and suffering Chendra to the sanctuary that has agreed to take her, halt all breeding, call off any plans to import more elephants, and finally pledge to shut down its elephant exhibit as other progressive zoos have done.


Take action for the Oregon Zoo elephants



#2 Worst Zoo - Kansas City Zoo, Kansas City, Missouri

Boosting Breeding At Any Cost

Fenced in, forced out of a life in nature. Photo: Judy Carman

Kansas City Zoo makes In Defense of Animals’ 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for the first time this year. Like all zoos on the 2022 list, Kansas City expanded its elephant habitat to a few acres — in this case, a puny 3 acres. The zoo sold its $10 million expansion under the guise that it would be a big improvement. Not only has the renovation failed to make any significant difference for the elephants, Kansas City stands out for one big additional reason. In 2019, one year before it opened its new elephant habitat, the zoo unveiled a cruel and misguided program to breed African elephants past their normal breeding age.

Kansas City Zoo knows the potential risks to the elephants’ health and wellbeing. But in its desperation to replenish its exhibit, Kansas City is willing to gamble on elephant lives, and makes that clear in its breeding plan.

The zoo keeps seven elephant captives. Six were forcefully removed from their mothers as two-year-olds and shipped to the U.S. from their home in Africa. The lone male was born in captivity at a zoo. All the females are over the age of 40. In wild populations, elephants do conceive successfully in later years, but in captivity, breeding is perilous to elephant mothers and babies, even at younger ages. Elephant miscarriages, stillbirths, and infanticide are shockingly common in zoos. Kansas City Zoo is well aware of the tragedies of captive breeding, since Lady had a stillborn baby at the zoo in 2001 when she was in her early 30s.

The Kansas City Zoo elephants are already stressed from living in tiny barren zoo enclosures, which are clearly damaging their mental health. In Defense of Animals has documented evidence of this stress behavior in the Kansas City Zoo elephants’ repetitive stereotypical behavior — a sign of “zoochosis” and a marker that captivity has caused brain damage.

Stereotypical stress behavior. Video: Judy Carman


“In a survey conducted in 2022, over 90% of participants stated that they believe that elephants should be given more space than is provided in zoos.”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”

Combined with all the threats to their physical health, including foot and joint disease, it is inhumane to subject older elephants to the added risk of breeding. The zoo has not responded to In Defense of Animals’ request for an update on this proposed breeding program. This plan must be stopped in its tracks, and never instituted at any other zoo.

In Defense of animals urges the Kansas City Zoo to better care for its elephants by ending all breeding and importing of elephants to the zoo, and sending them to a sanctuary — especially 54-year-old Lady who should be retired.


Why is breeding elephants harmful?



#3 Worst Zoo - Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska

An Expansion That Falls Very Short

Growing up in a fenced in wasteland. Photo: Dana Okuma

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Nebraska is #3 on the 10 Worst Zoos list this year for its emphasis on an expansion of a few acres that has been underway since 2010 and is still not finished in 2023. It was previously included on the list in 2015 and in 2017. The zoo boasts about all of its new amenities, but they are predominantly geared for visitors, as is noted in its plan. “A new ‘Safari Lodge’ serves as a hub for visitor services, including food & beverage and restrooms, and provides indoor and outdoor seating with spectacular panoramic views.” By contrast, the eight African elephant inmates of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium are forced to exist in an exhibit of a meager 5 acres indoors and out, but could roam over 2.6 million acres in the wild.

A new report explains on pages 19-21 that, regardless of their size, zoo exhibits fail to accommodate the true needs of elephants. Instead of a few scant acres of barren fenced-in yards, elephants require vast forests or savannas to roam, and forage on over 100 species of plants and trees in the wild. The features of natural habitats are vital to meeting elephants’ nutritional needs, their mental stimulation, and helping them maintain their physical agility and strength.

No grass, no trees, no life for an elephant. Photo: Dana Okuma

“Even the largest zoo enclosure is not nearly expansive enough to meet an elephant’s need for exercise, health and general well being. Relative to the size and needs of elephants, that we are all totally aware of, a sanctuary is the only legitimate place for elephants outside their home ranges.”

— Steve Friedland, former San Diego Zoo elephant keeper

Five elephants were born in the wild in Swaziland, separated from their families, then sent to three U.S. zoos, including Henry Doorly. The removal of the “Stolen 18” from Swaziland was a highly controversial and clandestine removal of animals from their natural habitat.

Bored elephant draping trunk on fence. Video: Tim Bezy


Unfortunately, the expansion of elephant exhibits in zoos across the U.S. typically occurs with the goal of breeding, yet breeding elephants in captivity serves only to perpetuate the serious issues that elephants in zoos experience and often ends in miscarriages and death. We are very concerned for pregnant captives Lolly, Kiki, and their unborn babies.

In Defense of Animals calls on Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium to end its breeding program, close its elephant exhibit, and send the elephants to accredited sanctuaries.


Why did zoos take elephants from the wild?



#4 Worst Zoo - Houston Zoo, Houston, Texas

Severe Stress Behavior Despite Bigger Space

Seeking escape from an empty and boring life. Photo: In Defense of Animals

This year, the Houston Zoo makes the 10 Worst Zoos list for the fourth time. It is included because its elephant enclosure — which doubled its original size of around 1.5 acres to 3.5 acres in 2017 — falls vastly short and fails to provide what elephants truly need. Elephants need miles to roam; their need to move far and wide is absolutely crucial to their physical and mental health. They need to explore and discover new terrain and seek new sources of food and water while foraging on a huge variety of plant species. None of these activities are available in the Houston Zoo’s tiny elephant enclosure. Additionally, expanded space in zoos usually means expanding the number of elephants. And Houston Zoo has a penchant for reckless breeding, despite knowing the risks of infection and death.

There are currently 13 elephants at the Houston Zoo, which is far too many elephants for just a few acres of space. Additionally, the zoo is committed to attempting to breed elephants and expand its collection, which is brutal for the elephants involved. Elephants breed poorly in captivity, and complications often arise. Six calves have died of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) at Houston Zoo, yet it still breeds. It is unethical to risk subjecting baby elephants to this excruciating disease through continued breeding.

Tempting trees on the outside, parched dirt lot inside. Photo: In Defense of Animals

In addition to the perils of more breeding, adding a little space has done nothing to lessen the elephants’ severe stereotypic behavior. The exhibit is devoid of any opportunity for elephants to experience their lives as real elephants. There is no grass, trees, or any kind of foliage that elephants require to maintain their nutritional needs. There is little to do except bob and sway, as evidenced by the behavior In Defense of Animals documented. Zoochotic behavior is a sign the impoverished conditions have caused the elephants brain damage.

Stereotypical stress behavior. Video: In Defense of Animals


“We have tinkered around the edges for long enough, and more baby steps are not the answer. Elephants do not belong in zoos.”
— Will Travers, Born Free Foundation

Houston Zoo needs to do the right thing for its elephants. Send the most obviously stressed elephants to a sanctuary now and pledge to shut down the elephant exhibit as many other U.S. zoos have already done.


Why do animals bob and sway at the zoo?



#5 Worst Zoo - Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas

Added Features Do Not Add Up to Better Lives

Small space, stunted lives. Photo: In Defense of Animals

In 2021, Fort Worth Zoo expanded its 1-acre elephant habitat to three times its former size. The $32 million dollar “Elephant Springs” proves yet again that adding a few extra acres does little to improve the lives of elephants. In Defense of Animals has documented the elephants at Fort Worth Zoo showing profound zoochosis, or stereotypical behavior, swaying, pacing, and walking round and round inside their small yards. It’s a sign the Fort Worth Zoo elephants have suffered brain damage from their living conditions.

A recent scientific report exposes how elephants suffer from a lack of space in zoos. Even adding pools and other forms of enrichment doesn’t make up for the lack of space which is critical for elephants to thrive. Imagine the rich complexity of their Asian homeland: verdant forests, hills, and carpets of lush greenery, along with plants and trees galore. That is real enrichment. In a zoo, “enrichment” is nothing more than an old tire or log. In addition to being too small, the Fort Worth Zoo’s enclosure lacks any kind of vegetation, which elephants require to maintain their dietary and browsing needs. It is clear from their behavior that the Fort Worth Zoo’s seven Asian elephants, including three males and four females, are highly stressed and bored.

Stereotypical stress behavior. Video: In Defense of Animals


“While quality of space is very important to elephant welfare, a large quantity of quality space is vital. The amount of space is a crucial aspect of its quality.”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”

When expanding, zoos simultaneously claim to give elephants more space while openly admitting they will attempt to breed more elephants to fill their enclosures. Fort Worth Zoo is no different.

New zoo births are highly promoted, and visitors line up to see them. But Fort Worth Zoo is well aware that breeding is perilous and often deadly to captive elephants. In 2008, at age 41, pregnant Babe and her unborn baby died when her uterus tore during labor. This was Babe’s fourth pregnancy. Each one before had ended in a stillbirth, yet the Fort Worth Zoo has recklessly continued to risk elephant lives. Its newest baby elephant, Brazos, was born in October of 2021, 7 months after the new exhibit opened in April. In November 2022, 9-year-old male Bowie became the zoo's latest transfer abuse victim, forced to separate from his companions to serve as a breeder at the Oklahoma City Zoo — the sixth worst zoo of 2021.

This is the fourth time Fort Worth Zoo has been on the 10 Worst Zoo list. It is time for the zoo to follow the science and stop pretending its 3-acre exhibit can satisfy the complex social and physical needs of the world’s largest land mammals. The zoo should retire its elephants to a sanctuary now and stop breeding and importing any more.


Take action now for the Fort Worth Zoo elephants



#6 Worst Zoo - Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis, Indiana

More Space Is Still Impoverished Space

Crowded in to please the crowds. Photo: In Defense of Animals

Indianapolis Zoo is on the 10 Worst Zoos list for the first time this year. The new “Tembo Camp,” which opened in 2020, expands the exhibit’s original size. The zoo has not released information about the exact size, but it appears to be a few acres. This increase did little to better the lives of its five African elephant captives. While the new space has some grass, it is extremely difficult for the elephants to graze on it, as it is so short. The new enclosure forces elephants into closer contact with visitors who can be entertained watching elephants display their trained behavior inside the “demonstration area” or pay an eye-watering fee to bathe them.

Elephant escaping being gawked at by noisy crowd. Video: In Defense of Animals


A new report reveals elephants’ need for ample, complex space. Natural elephant habitat comprises different physical features, terrain and slopes, substrates, and foraging challenges. One look at the elephant exhibit at the Indianapolis Zoo makes it clear none of this essential complexity is present. Instead, it looks more like a grassy prison yard, with all the real foliage and greenery out of reach outside the exhibit.

Public spectacle in a sliver of space. Photo: In Defense of Animals

“While quality of space is very important to elephant welfare, a large quantity of quality space is vital.The amount of space is a crucial aspect of its quality.”

— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”

Not only do the Indianapolis Zoo elephants endure brain-damaging boredom in this tiny space, they also suffer abusive and deadly breeding practices. As of 2019, the zoo agreed to participate in Kansas City Zoo’s misguided experimental African elephant breeding program. Breeding elephants in captivity is already extremely risky for mothers and babies, but this desperate scheme is likely to be even riskier by breeding older elephants. Sickeningly, the zoo boasts the use of artificial insemination, which often involves restraining females for invasive attempts to impregnate them. The zoo's sorry record of breeding has produced calves who have died from elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHV).

Adding a few acres of space does not solve the problem of a failed breeding program and the high incidences of EEHV, a deadly disease for young elephants. Instead of touting Tembo Camp, the zoo should immediately halt any breeding plans, pledge to close its elephant exhibit, and send its elephants to an accredited sanctuary.


What's wrong with breeding elephants in captivity?



#7 Worst Zoo - Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia

Taxpayer Dollars Fund Elephant Suffering

Fenced into a cramped small space for life. Photo: In Defense of Animals

This is Zoo Atlanta’s first appearance on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. The zoo’s “Grand New View” project, completed in 2020, renovated and expanded the African habitats for elephants, zebras, giraffes, and other species. The entire expansion is 4.6 acres, but sharing the exhibit among these different animals means that its three wild-born African elephants, Kelly, Tara, and Misholo, are getting far less space than the zoo would like the public to believe.

Zoo Atlanta is extremely cryptic about how much space its elephants have, and only specifies that the elephants now have access to three times as much space. Before the expansion, the original exhibit must therefore have been around just 1.5 acres. The elephants have some part of 4.6 acres, but they share it with a multitude of other species, and the expansion also includes a ballroom, banquet hall, and other areas for zoo visitors as well, further reducing the space that these elephants have. It’s unclear if the minuscule space for elephants has increased at all. But even if the elephants had access to all 4.6 acres, it would still be less than one percent of the smallest wild African savanna elephant range of 3,460 acres.

This $56 mil. exhibit is bereft of anything elephants love. Photo: In Defense of Animals

But the size itself isn’t the only deception — the zoo’s expansion costs were not straightforward either. The cost was initially proposed at $38 million but eventually increased to $56 million. The zoo took its time providing the financial records to the Atlanta Fulton County Recreation Authority, the overseeing body. Zoo Atlanta funded the expansion mostly via donations, but in the past, the zoo has been criticized for ballooning costs and mismanaging public money when renovating facilities. The zoo has almost $22 million in city taxpayer bonds, which means taxpayers contribute to the captivity of the zoo’s animals, including the elephants.

Zoo Atlanta has been unclear about whether or not it is planning to breed elephants in this new expansion. While the elephant program manager expresses an “urgency” to engage in breeding programs, these are brutal and potentially deadly to captive elephants, and do not help wild elephant populations in any way.

Zoo Atlanta has been deceptive on all fronts: about its elephant space, its financial plans and funding, and its plans to breed elephants. The zoo should not pursue breeding and send its elephants to an accredited sanctuary where their welfare needs will come first above any financial concerns.


Are zoos good for animals?



#8 Worst Zoo - Tulsa Zoo, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Even 10 Acres Is Far From Enough Space for Far-Roaming Elephants

Desolate space, desperate lives. Photo: Alyssa Iverson

The Tulsa Zoo makes its first appearance on In Defense of Animals’ 10 Worst Zoos list in 2022, having started renovations that will add a little space for elephants. The new 13-acre enclosure adds only 10 acres for its three Asian elephants, Sooky, Booper, and Sneezy — and the zoo plans to add more elephants. While the area may seem significant to us, it is far from enough for elephants who wander for up to 100 miles a day in the wild. And it comes at an eye-watering price for the elephants.

When viewed from an elephant’s perspective, 10 acres is a miniature amount of space. An elephant can walk across a 2.47 acre enclosure in one minute, so a few extra acres just means the Tulsa Zoo’s elephants can now walk across their exhibit in under four minutes. Compared to the hours of roaming, exploring and foraging that elephants can do in the wild, zoo environments leave their minds and bodies woefully underutilized, and they suffer enormously for that lack of stimulating activity.

A few flat acres instead of a vast varied terrain. Photo: Alyssa Iverson

It will cost Tulsa Zoo donors $33 million — but the cost to the elephants is far greater, not just in the profound lack of room to live their lives like real elephants, but the zoo plans to ramp up its breeding program. It is specifically designing the elephant enclosure as a “breeding facility.” Tulsa Zoo wants to tear male elephants from their companions in other zoos and ship them in to become sperm donors. This common zoo cruelty is a form of transfer abuse.

Tulsa Zoo’s conservation claims are a thin pretense. Attempts to create a self-sustaining elephant population in North America does nothing to help elephants in their native homelands. Zoo breeding only results in denying more elephants the experience of living in the wild and the joy of roaming in a vast open space among their multi-generational families.

Stereotypical stress behavior. Video: Alyssa Iverson


“By persisting to keep these animals in zoos and other captive environments… we are perpetuating untold and unnecessary animal suffering on a mammoth scale.”
— Will Travers, Born Free Foundation, “Elephants in Zoos: A Legacy of Shame”

Tulsa Zoo should halt its funding to expand the elephant exhibit, donate the existing money to conserve elephants in the wild, and send Sooky, Booper, and Sneezy to a sanctuary. It is essential Tulsa Zoo does not risk the lives of its elephants or others in a breeding program, and instead prevents future generations of elephants from suffering in a small, dystopian prison.


Why do zoos sever elephant bonds?



#9 Worst Zoo - Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas

Expanded To Squeeze In More Wild Elephants

Bleak exhibit, bleak future. Photo: Dianne Waltner

In 2016, the Sedgwick County Zoo opened its new $10.6 million exhibit. Formerly, the outdoor area was a mere quarter of an acre — about the size of two basketball courts. But even by enlarging the space to 4.8 acres, it is still totally inadequate to provide for the needs of the zoo’s eight African elephants, who would roam for many miles a day if they were still in the wild.

The exhibit is completely empty of vegetation for elephants, creating a stark contrast between the vast savannahs of Africa and this cramped and barren zoo enclosure. It's a haven for visitors, however. Zoo-goers can enjoy a 3,000 sq foot viewing area, new concession building, and shaded amphitheater. In addition, this is the first exhibit to offer boat rides that allow visitors to share the same water as the elephants. It must be the zoo’s lavish attention to visitors rather than animals that won an award for this tiny, desolate exhibit.

Nowhere to go in a nowhere land. Photo: Dianne Waltner

The same year the zoo expanded its elephant exhibit, it imported six new African elephants to augment its population of one. Stephanie was captured in South Africa and shipped to the states in 1972 when she was just one year old along with Cinda, who died at this zoo in 2014. The six new elephants are part of the “Stolen 18.” They were purchased by Sedgwick County Zoo and two other U.S. zoos in a backroom deal with the Swaziland government.

The zoos snatched the elephants from their wild home, and though they may claim it was a rescue mission, an exhaustive investigative report by The New York Times questions that claim. Aside from one, a male named Ajani, all elephants at Sedgwick County Zoo were taken from the wild, where they are endangered. They will never go back.

Elephant digging for food in barren exhibit. Video: Dianne Waltner


“All zoos are designed with the convenience of the public in mind... but(it) is often woefully inadequate in providing for the animals needs, especially in the case of elephants. Most zoo professionals will acknowledge this as fact, although many dare not say so in public.”
— Steve Friedland, former elephant keeper, San Diego Zoo

Just like all zoos that expand their elephant exhibits, the Sedgwick County Zoo plans to breed more, increasing ticket sales, but dooming yet more elephants to lifetimes in insufferably small enclosures.

This is the second time the Sedgwick County Zoo has made the 10 Worst Zoos list. We hope it’s the last time. In Defense of Animals urges the zoo to listen to those in science, education, and media calling for an end to the cruel confinement of far-roaming elephants and send its elephants to sanctuary.

“At what point does our wonder no longer warrant another being’s wounding?”
— Charles Siebert, The New York Times Magazine, “Zoos Call it a “Rescue” But are the Elephants Really Better Off?”



How can I help elephants?



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

More Space, More Elephants, More Suffering

No way out of brain-numbing boredom: Photo: Tim Stegmaier

The Cincinnati Zoo is a repeat offender on In Defense of Animals’ 10 Worst Zoos list, with this being its second appearance. Cincinnati Zoo’s current elephant exhibit is a mere single acre and houses four Asian elephants. It deceptively claims renovations to its “Elephant Trek,” scheduled to be completed in 2024, will increase the space by five times from its current miserly 1 acre. This adds up to just 5 acres, but only 4 acres are for the elephants, which is still tiny. The rest of the space goes to ticket holders as paths, picnic areas and gardens, and an event space that can accommodate 250 people. If the zoo’s breeding plans work, the elephants’ space will get even smaller.

The zoo’s claims are misleading in two key ways. First, the Cincinnati Zoo’s current 1-acre exhibit is a postage stamp for an animal whose natural range is 25,000 acres. Experts advise a single captive elephant needs a minimum of 250 acres of varied natural space in a warm weather setting for a fulfilling life. Increasing 1 acre to 4 is a drop in the bucket, and still significantly fails to meet elephants’ needs. Indeed, elephants at Cincinnati can be seen exhibiting signs of brain damage, which shows they are not coping with extreme confinement.

Stereotypical stress behavior. Video: Tim Stegmaier


Second, the Cincinnati Zoo intends to stuff the enclosure further. The zoo plans to import four more elephants and breed even more babies, housing up to 12 elephants in just 4 acres. The zoo is already causing transfer abuse to Sabu, an unwilling sperm donor, who was sent to the Columbus Zoo until 2024. Jati-Hit, Mai-Thai, and Schottzie will face risky and invasive breeding procedures. Babies who survive into adulthood will endure a lifetime of mental and physical suffering, including, for many, brain damage and early death. Adding new elephants to the exhibit entirely negates the supposed benefits of the expansion.

The renovations grossly highlight the disconnect between keeping elephants locked up and conserving them in the wild. Instead of funding actual conservation, donors to the Cincinnati Zoo have been duped into paying over $50 million to add less than a basketball court of space for each elephant… and keeping them confined in misery.

According to conservation biologist, Dr. Keith Lindsay, “If Cincinnati Zoo’s $50 million was put into an endowment and a conservative annual income of just 8% was produced — most such funds provide a substantially higher rate of return — it could fund Big Life’s annual field programme in perpetuity.”

Big Life is an organization based in East Africa that partners with local communities to protect wilderness. He adds, “The area covered is 320,000 times as large as the new 5-acre enclosure and there are 250 times more elephants in the Amboseli ecosystem than would be kept in that exhibit.”

The zoo’s own report reveals “the primary motivation of people who come to zoos is to spend quality time with their families.” Entertainment is an inexcusable reason to lock up thinking, feeling animals and deny everything that’s essential to them for a happy life.

“People go to the zoo to laugh, eat popcorn and watch their kids run around. The amount of people enjoying animals for what they are you could count on one hand.”
— Lisa Landres, former keeper at San Diego Zoo

In Defense of Animals urges Cincinnati Zoo to reconsider its breeding plan and not bring more elephants into the cruel cycle of captivity in a crushingly small space. Elephants truly belong in the wild, and the zoo should send its captives to a warm-weather sanctuary that can meet their basic needs.



Which zoos have closed their elephant exhibits?



Hall of Shame:

Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California

Severing Bonds To Stock Tiny Electrified Exhibit

Sterile space, sterile lives. Photo: Gigi Glendinning/Nonhuman Rights Project

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo enters the 10 Worst Zoos Hall of Shame this year after ranking #9 in 2021. The zoo remodeled its elephant exhibit in 2015, and while it claims it is approximately 4 acres, Amahle, Nolwazi, and Mabu, the three African elephants held captive there, have even less usable outdoor space than that. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) launched a lawsuit against the zoo, stating that the African elephant yard is just 3 acres and the elephants have limited access. Another deprivation is the trees are electrically wired to prevent touching. The outdoor yard can be divided into two smaller yards by gates, which decreases the space. In the winter, it gets too cold for the elephants to be outside, so they are confined in a barn, which further restricts their movement and space.

Electric wires turn trees into no touch zones: Photo: Gigi Glendinning/Nonhuman Rights Project

Though the enclosure size meets the minimum standards of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), it comes nowhere near to meeting the true needs of elephants. A report by Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay explains, “It takes an elephant slightly over a minute to walk across a 1 hectare (2.5 acres) enclosure… a small enclosure simply cannot offer a sufficient diversity of experience.” And “…for animals that must remain in captivity, 100 hectares (250 acres) or more of diverse, natural habitat would offer individual elephants the opportunity to live fulfilling lives.”

The NhRP’s lawsuit on behalf of the elephants’ rights to legal personhood and bodily liberty, argues that they have a right to live in their natural habitat or as close to it as possible. Experts supporting the lawsuit all determined that facilities like the Fresno Chaffee Zoo cause significant negative impacts on elephants.

A deceptive panorama where paradise is out of reach. Photo: Gigi Glendinning/Nonhuman Rights Project

Male elephant Vusmusi, also known as Moose, was sent to Fresno from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2015 when he was 11 years old. He was torn from his friends and family in a traumatic process known as transfer abuse. In November 2022, Vusmusi was returned and replaced by another male, Mabu. He was brought in from Reid Park Zoo in Arizona with the aim of producing crowd-pleasing babies. Breeding captive elephants is inherently dangerous and will make the elephants’ tiny living space even more cramped.

In Defense of Animals calls on the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to halt breeding, stop traumatic transfers of elephants, shut down its undersized elephant exhibit, and send its elephants to sanctuary.



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Dishonorable Mention:

Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Forty Seconds of Exercise

Behind bars indoors to escape bitter cold weather. Photo: Alliance for Animals

This is Milwaukee Zoo’s fourth appearance on the 10 Worst Zoos list. The Milwaukee Zoo is a prison for three African elephants, Ruth, Brittany, and its most recent addition, Belle. The zoo constructed a 1.6-acre elephant exhibit in 2019, which it praises for being bigger than its previous exhibit. We shudder to think of the inadequacy of the zoo’s previous elephant enclosure, let alone its new and “improved” one.

Wild elephants can roam up to a hundred miles each day. Yet these three elephants are restricted to an outdoor area of under 2 acres. During Milwaukee’s bitterly cold winters, the elephants often prefer to be indoors. To understand how small 2 acres is, calculations suggest the Milwaukee Zoo elephants can walk directly from one end of their exhibit to the other in approximately 40 seconds.

Frustration and boredom from living indoors in a bitter cold climate. Video: Alliance for Animals


Amusement parks like Milwaukee Zoo offer “enrichment” in a vain attempt to break the boredom of the elephants’ existence. But the compensation offered in exchange for their freedom seems like a cruel joke. No amount of popcorn from Milwaukee Zoo’s treat dispenser can make up for forcing these elephants to suffer an extreme lack of space.

In their report, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity,” Rob Atkinson, Ph.D. and Keith Lindsay, Ph.D. expose artificial ‘enrichment’ as “an admission that the space provided isn’t fit for purpose.” Hanging toys and treat dispensers do not make up for the fact that elephants are not meant to live their lives cramped in small spaces. With or without toys, “a small enclosure simply cannot offer a sufficient diversity of experience.”

“An old tractor tire or a cut off tree branch does not simulate a natural environment, no matter how hard zoo behaviorists try to pretend it does.”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”

Frigid wasteland. Photo: Alliance for Animals

To make matters worse, the zoo claims to be able to accommodate up to five elephants in this tiny space. The Milwaukee Zoo is also part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ misleading and harmful Species Survival Plan, which puts Ruth, Brittany, and Belle at risk of brutal and potentially deadly breeding procedures.

On a more positive note, in 2022 the Milwaukee Zoo opened Gorilla Trek, an immersive virtual reality experience, as part of its Adventure Africa renovation. Moving seats and 360-degree visuals transport zoo visitors to be with mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in Rwanda. With technology this advanced, it should be possible to take zoo-goers to Asia and Africa to see elephants living as elephants. In Defense of Animals urges Milwaukee Zoo to set a precedent for other zoos by phasing out live elephants and replacing cramped realty with virtual reality.


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