The Tormented, Tragic Life of Incarcerated Bull Elephants
For this year's 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, we are turning our attention to an often overlooked population of elephants, the lonely and frustrated bulls. Bull elephants are a force of nature. They weigh in at up to 7 tons, grow to 11 feet in height, and in their wild homes, thunder through the forests or savannas of Asia and Africa at top speeds of 15 to 25 mph. They roam for miles per day, exploring new paths and water sources, foraging on 350 pounds of plants and grasses, fruits, tree bark and branches, digging up roots with their mighty tusks, vying for females with other adult males, teaching young bulls the ins and outs of elephant life, and socializing over the water hole with their fellow male companions. We now know males are not loners, they need friendships just as females do.
None of that is possible for male elephants in captivity. They are often housed alone, separated from females or other males, if there are any. Many zoos have just one male elephant. To control their behavior, they are deprived of food during musth, when their hormones are raging. They are anally raped to obtain sperm for breeding. And they are given little to no choice about who to breed with if natural breeding is attempted. Worst of all, they have nowhere to go to release all their massive pent-up energy. Over time, their spirits and minds shrink to fit their artificial and pitifully tiny space, evidenced by their brain-damaged zoochotic behavior.
Life in captivity for males is unavoidably one long process of thwarting highly motivated behaviors.
— Dr. Rob Atkinson & Dr. Keith Lindsay
Breeding elephants in zoos has no conservation benefit for wild elephants. Behind misleading zoo conservation claims is the truth: captive breeding just produces more captive elephants. Artificial insemination, which is often utilized in zoos produces many more males and the rate of stillbirths is three times as high as natural mating.
Mass production of males poses a big challenge to zoos. Bulls are harder to manage than females, especially during musth, a time during which male elephants exhibit increased levels of sexual activity and aggressiveness.
Billy, trapped in Los Angeles Zoo, is a poster pachyderm for all the bulls suffering in zoos. Backed by a huge swell of public support, celebrities including Cher and Lily Tomlin have led the charge to release Billy. At a sanctuary, he would never again have to endure invasive anal sperm extraction and endless days of head bobbing inside a one acre enclosure. Instead, Billy can luxuriate in acres of grass, trees and ponds in a quiet, serene setting. We have the same hope for Thai at the Houston Zoo, Sdudla at Zoo Tampa and all the males who are trapped in a sterile and often lonely existence.
We call on zoos to halt their failed breeding programs, to stop importing any more, and to send the ones they have to reputable sanctuaries.
The future we envision is for all zoos to shut down their elephant exhibits as 34 zoos have already done, and an end to condemning powerful, majestic bull elephants to the soul-crushing deprivations of life in a zoo.
Celebrity Support To Release Elephants From 10 Worst Zoos
Actor and musician, Harley Quinn Smith, best known for her work in Cruel Summer, is supporting In Defense of Animals' exposé of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2023. She joins Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Jorja Fox, Ricky Gervais and Moby, who have pledged their support to In Defense of Animals to end captivity for elephants in zoos.
Harley Quinn Smith
Actor and Musician
Comedian, Actor, and Television Host
Comedian, Actress, and Writer
Actress and Producer
World-Renowned Animal Advocate and Comedian
Decades-Long Animal Activist and Musician
10 Worst Zoos 2023:
- Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Los Angeles, California
- Houston Zoo, Houston, Texas
- ABQ BioPark Zoo, Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Denver Zoo, Denver, Colorado
- Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium, Kansas City, Missouri
- Dallas Zoo, Dallas, Texas
- Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- St Louis Zoo, St Louis, Missouri
- Zoo Tampa, Tampa, Florida
- Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Hall of Shame: Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida
Dishonorable Mention: Zoo Miami, Miami, Florida
2023 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America
Decades of Chronic Stress Sapped Billy's Body & Spirit
Incarcerated for 34 years. Photo: Elephant Guardians of Los Angeles
The dire situation for the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens' lone Asian bull elephant, 38-year-old Billy, catapults this zoo to the number one spot as the worst zoo for elephants. Due to his constrained, unnatural existence in a puny-sized exhibit, Billy's body and mind further declines each passing year. This is evident from his severe zoochotic bobbing and swaying, a clear sign of brain damage.
Billy is suffering from years of the worst kind of zoo-related stress, loneliness and depression. During Billy's many months of musth (a periodic condition in bull elephants characterized by aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones), the zoo staff is not able to keep up with his footcare, and his daily pacing over ground steeped with urine and feces is creating deep infections that could soon lead to fatal foot disease. Billy has endured numerous highly invasive procedures to extract sperm for breeding elephants in other zoos, but all attempts failed.
An army of fans, including Cher and Lily Tomlin, have pleaded for his release for years. There is no excuse to keep Billy locked up for the rest of his life and repeat the tragedies of Jewel’s death in 2023 and Shaunzi, who was euthanized in 2024 after being taken from the wild and locked up for almost her entire life. It is time for the LA Zoo and the LA City Council to do the right thing for this sad ghost of an elephant and send him immediately to a reputable sanctuary, together with the zoo’s remaining 57-year-old elderly female, Tina. A motion to release Billy to sanctuary was introduced by retired Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz and seconded by Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, so this is the perfect time to advocate for his release.This year is the eighth time the LA Zoo has made the 10 Worst Zoos list, and we hope for Billy's sake, it’s the last.
Exploiting Males To Grow Population & Profits
Used to pump out babies. Photo: Houston Zoo/Facebook
Houston Zoo jumps to the number two position this year from fourth place on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in 2022. This is the fifth time Houston has made our list. Last year, we called out this zoo for squeezing 12 elephants into a 3.5-acre enclosure, causing them enormous stress, evidenced by their pronounced zoochotic behavior.
Houston Zoo is also infamous for its prolific breeding. The number one breeder at the zoo is 58-year-old Thai. He was born wild in 1965, captured at age 2, and imported to the U.S. by elephant trainer Morgan Berry. By age 8, Thai was already a circus performer, part of an all-male circus act for Rudy Bros. Circus. In 1980, he landed at the Houston Zoo, producing 20 babies for the zoo's breeding program. Five of the 20 calves he sired were stillborn, and nine died by age 13. Five males, ages 2 to 18, will also be used for breeding. Baylor, at 13, already exhibits the same advanced zoochotic behavior as the female elephants.
It is time for Houston Zoo to retire Thai to a sanctuary, where he can enjoy his twilight years in peace, free of invasive breeding procedures and free to roam on vast acres instead of swaying in a diminutive, desolate yard.
Shaking, Vulnerable & Forced To Entertain
Isolated and diseased. Photo: Nancy Arenas
Ranked second in 2021, ABQ BioPark Zoo makes our 10 Worst Zoos list for the second time. Last time we drew attention to the fact that the zoo remains recklessly and cruelly committed to breeding Asian elephants even though every baby elephant born at the zoo in over a decade has died.
This year, ABQ’s treatment of its sole male at the zoo lands it on the 10 Worst Zoos list. 25-year-old Albert, who has tuberculosis (TB) and is kept isolated in a confined space, suffers from lack of socialization. To make matters worse, the barren exhibit sits next to a busy highway and is constantly barraged by traffic sounds, as well as periodic zoo construction noise. Albert’s TB treatment has been difficult for him. He has reacted to multiple medications and has repeated eye problems. Prior to testing positive for the infection in June 2023, keepers noted Albert’s display of lameness and shaking in his front legs. As if he isn’t suffering enough, Albert — along with the other elephants at the zoo — is forced to entertain visitors by painting.
Instead of continuing to exploit Albert and subject him to further suffering, it’s time for the zoo to retire him to a sanctuary where he will receive 24/7 care to heal from his disease, and thrive in a spacious, peaceful environment.
Turning Bulls Into Bullies
A sad face, a sadder life. Photo: Anna Staat
This is the second time the Denver Zoo makes our 10 Worst Zoos list. This zoo holds a startling six male Asian elephants captive, in contrast to many other zoos with only one or two lonely males. Groucho, Bodhi, Billy, Chuck and his half-brother Jake all reside there, along with the zoo’s most recent addition, Duncan, who was sent from the Houston Zoo in 2023. Denver Zoo is inviting disaster by forcing captive elephants into unnatural social situations, some far too young to leave their families.
Denver Zoo openly acknowledges that its elephants exhibit zoochotic behavior, a sign of brain damage and failure to cope with their unnatural environment. Failing mental welfare is common in captive elephants, but Denver’s bulls are under extreme pressure owing to their close confinement, and they have been seen engaging in bullying behavior. Zoos often keep males isolated because of heightened aggression during musth, a natural hormonal fluctuation which encourages male elephants to breed. While these elephants may have companionships that males in other zoos do not have, the group is unnaturally constructed, and there is no room to escape serious conflicts between elephants. Additionally, some of the males spend time isolated in three separate holding areas, so it's questionable how much companionship they actually enjoy.
The best way to provide a life as close to nature as possible, is to retire all the Denver Zoo elephants to a sanctuary.“Confining males in artificial attempts to replicate ‘bachelor’ herds can lead to aggression and death.”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay
Broken Tusks, Broken Spirits
Subjected to invasive procedures. Photo: Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium/Facebook
“Following A.I. the sex ratio read 17 males and 4 females. The rate of stillbirths after A.I. was 33.3% and hence three times as high as after natural mating.”
Tamani is the lone African elephant at the Kansas City Zoo. He is 18 years old and has been subjected to significant suffering during his time at the zoo. He was born via artificial insemination (AI), and now he endures invasive bi-weekly sperm extractions as a part of breeding programs at other facilities. According to a scientific report, AI leads to over four times as many male births as females.
Some Remarks on the Success of Artificial Insemination in Elephants
Fred Kurt and Joachim Endres
This is a problem for zoos because males are notoriously more difficult to care for and contain. It’s a tragedy for every captive baby boy born, as they will be confined for life in an unnatural and cramped exhibit that strips them of everything it means to be a powerful, virile bull elephant.
Poor Tamani has a missing right tusk and three inches on his left tusk. He is kept separated from the female elephants in the yard and often shows aggression towards keepers as well. All of his feet are cracked, a sure sign of suffering and a possible pointer to deadly foot disease. Zoos are not the place for male elephants – life in captivity leads to injured bodies and injured spirits. This is Kansas City’s second appearance on our list. It is time for this zoo to end cruel elephant confinement and release this sad elephant to a warm, spacious and peaceful sanctuary.
Squeezed Into a Sterile & Unnatural Environment
A desolate existence far from home. Photo: The Elephant Initiative
Dallas Zoo makes our list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants for the fourth time. Currently eight African elephants are stuffed into a space that former elephant keeper Les O’Brien says is “equivalent to a bathroom for a human family of four.” In 2023, male elephant Ajabu died before his seventh birthday, following a 12-day battle with elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), after fighting the disease for a second time. Okubil was born at the zoo in February 2023. His mother, Mlilo, and father, Tendaji, were among 18 wild elephants rounded up from Swaziland in 2016 and sold to zoos, horrifying international conservation authorities. Estimated to be around 20 years old, Tendaji is referred to by the zoo as “a ladies man.” When our investigator visited the zoo to obtain footage she did not see young Okubili in the exhibit and was told by a keeper that he was “put away” and “not let out into the enclosures at this point.” The zoo claims that Tendaji is placed with the females every chance they get when one of them is in cycle. Otherwise, he is likely isolated as is seen in the photo here.
Dallas Zoo needs to stop its breeding program and allow young Okubili to be in the outdoor area, or much better yet, send him, Tenjaji, and the female elephants to a sanctuary where they can thrive in a natural and peaceful environment.
Plagued With Painful Disease
Young and restless. Photo: Alyssa Iversen
This year is the Oklahoma City Zoo’s fifth appearance on the 10 Worst Zoos list. The zoo has eight Asian elephants, including three bulls: Bowie, Kandula and Rex. These male elephants experience debilitating illnesses, complicated by the zoo’s cruel breeding agenda and musth, a periodic condition in male elephants characterized by aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.
Ten-year-old Bowie has no way to expend his youthful energy in his desolate yard, and has tested positive for elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), a potentially fatal virus which claimed the life of 4-year-old Malee in 2015. Kandula, 22, suffers problems with both of his eyes, which may be cataracts. Rex, 55, seems to be the worst off of them all – he has wounds all over his body, degenerative joint disease, arthritis, difficulty seeing and an infected toenail leading to an abscess on his foot, among other concerning issues. Despite his terrible state, Oklahoma City Zoo has prioritized its misguided breeding program over Rex’s health, placing him in the female herd to mate. Because of this, keepers were unable to administer his pain medication. His medical records also note “chronic swaying,” indicating he has brain damage from his unnatural confinement.
It is time for the Oklahoma City Zoo to put the elephants' health and wellbeing first and send these three males to a reputable sanctuary, followed soon by the five females.
The Sad Plight of the Solitary Male
Unnatural separation. Photo: Rion Harper/Sasha Zemmel
Raja, the bull elephant at the St. Louis Zoo, lives a lonely, isolated life, obviously frustrated with his inability to reach the seven females kept behind a barrier. Shockingly, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums allows males 6 and older to be isolated, with limited tactile interaction with the other elephants, much like a prison inmate. This isolation is a far cry from their life in the wild. We now know from recent research that elephants do not live solitary lives in the wild. They live in matriarchal herds until they are teenagers, and then they leave to form bachelor herds, where the older bulls serve as mentors to the younger ones.
Raja cannot enjoy any normal male life at the St. Louis Zoo. His job is to breed, and so far, Raja has sired seven calves, four of whom died under 3 years old. The zoo recently announced it will be shipping Raja off to the Columbus Zoo in order to breed more elephants with the females there. Raja serves as the zoo’s experimental subject to test drug toxicity, and he endures numerous blood draws for “plasma banking” for future treatments of elephants.
Three other males all died at early ages. Herman suffered an especially tragic death from botched surgical castration when he was just 15 years old. With Rani and Donna’s recent deaths, 20 elephants have perished, eight under the age of 15 and many at birth. The brutal winters in the Midwest are utterly unsuitable for tropical elephants. In 2022, Raja spent his 30th birthday inside his barren stall on a below-freezing day, aptly marking his tragic, lonely life in captivity.
This is the eighth time St. Louis Zoo makes our list. We urge the St. Louis Zoo to stop exploiting Raja for its failed breeding program and send him to a spacious and peaceful warm weather sanctuary so he can start enjoying the rest of his life roaming free instead of cooped up alone in a tiny zoo enclosure.
Stolen From the Wild To Shore Up Zoo Populations
From paradise to prison. Photo: In Defense of Animals
Sdudla, the 33-year-old lone bull at Zoo Tampa, once roamed wild and free on 7,576 square miles in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He was relocated to a reserve in Swaziland and in 2003, he, one other male and two females were captured and shipped from Swaziland to a 2.5-acre zoo enclosure in Tampa. We called Zoo Tampa out for this traumatic transfer on our 10 Worst Zoo list in 2008. Fifteen years later, Sdudla is still leading a lonely, isolated life in a tiny, impoverished enclosure. Any opportunity to live as nature intended and serve as a valuable mentor to younger elephants is forever stripped from him.
Sdudla is a pawn in the zoo's breeding program. So far, he has sired four calves, one of whom died. In 2023, Dr. Cynthia Stringfield, Zoo Tampa’s senior vice president of animal health, conservation, and education, said, "He's making babies here at the zoo. And the other part of his job, besides making babies and having a great life, is to have people think about elephants in the wild." In all the many years that zoos have kept elephants, their populations continue to decline in the wild. Zoo Tampa is making things worse by taking elephants away from their wild homes. The education zoos say they provide obviously has no positive effect on saving wild elephants.
It's time for Zoo Tampa to admit the truth. Sdudla is just a shell of his former self, living a diminished life in a prison-like environment a world away from his huge, natural home. This is the third time for Zoo Tampa to appear on our list. We urge Zoo Tampa to honor Sdudla's free-born African heritage and send him to a reputable sanctuary where he can regain his connection to his wild bull elephant nature.
Bulls Behind Bars, Nowhere To Go, Nothing To Do
A barrier to friendship. Photo: In Defense of Animals
Imagine if all you have to do all day is eat, sleep, and traverse the same barren 3-acre sand yard, 365 days a year. That is the plight of the Oregon Zoo’s Asian elephants, 15-year-old Samudra and 25-year-old Samson. In the wild, majestic male elephants explore vast forests and grasslands, foraging on wild plants and roots, mating with females of their choice, and forming life-long bonds with other males. Their stunted life in the zoo, along with the history of abuses and diseases endured by the Oregon Zoo's males, is why this zoo makes our 10 Worst Zoo list for the 13th time.
Oregon Zoo has a long history of abusing male elephants. Former inmates Packy, Rama and Tusko all had tuberculosis, suffered foot and joint disease, and exhibited profound zoochotic behavior. Rama was euthanized in 2015 due to pain from a decades-old leg injury he sustained at the zoo. Tusko was also euthanized that year, also due to pain from an old injury. Against the wishes of his keeper, scientists and the public, Oregon Zoo killed Packy for financial convenience in 2017, sparking demonstrations and World Zoothanasia Day in his honor.
In 2018, Samson was torn from his brother and friend Albert at the Albuquerque Zoo and unceremoniously shipped off to Oregon. Samson is used to breed, so he spends time with Rose-Tu. But Samudra is often isolated, and we now know that male elephants are lonely when denied companionship. When Samudra was born, his mother, stomped on him to kill him, something that never happens in the wild. At just 15 years old, Samudra’s two back feet already have cracked nails, which can lead to serious infection, even death. In addition, a plan is in the works to send Samudra to the #8 worst zoo, St. Louis Zoo, where he will endure even colder weather than he does in Oregon.
Envision Samson and Samudra romping happily in a spacious sanctuary carpeted in lush grasses and dotted with trees and ponds. That is the future we desire for Samson and Samudra, along with Rose-tu, Shine and Chendra, the three females at the zoo. If the Oregon Zoo fulfills that wish, this year will be the last time they make the 10 Worst Zoos list.
Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida
Kidnapped, Exploited & Confined for Life
Trapped and tuskless. Photo: Victoria Kress
The only living male elephant at the Jacksonville Zoo was born in South Africa, where he roamed free on the vast savannas of Kruger National Park. But at just 2 years old, African elephant Ali was snatched from his wild home and family and shipped to Michael Jackson's infamous amusement park, Neverland Ranch, in California. In 1997, when he was just 6, Ali was sent back across the country to the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, where he was encouraged to breed unnaturally young. Ali sired his first calf at just 13 years old. In the wild, peak breeding years for African elephant bulls are 40-55. In the wild, older males also mentor young bulls, teaching them the ins and outs of responsible male behavior. At zoos, males are deprived of this crucial relationship because they are kept alone to avoid fighting, or they’re swapped around between zoos for contrived and unnatural breeding.
Zoos have stolen freedom, innocence, and vital male relationships from Ali. Now they’ve taken his tusks too. Ali recently underwent intensive tusk surgery for the second time. According to zoo staff, he rubbed his remaining tusk on tires, got it stuck and then had to have it removed. Confinement in unnatural zoo enclosures is hazardous to elephants, and many males have lost one or both tusks from rubbing them on hard surfaces.
Ali, now 32, has spent almost his entire life in captivity, denied everything that makes a wild bull elephant the fantastic force of nature he was born to be. This is the second time Jacksonville Zoo has made the list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants. We strongly urge the zoo to send Ali to sanctuary now so he can recapture his wild, free spirit before he dies an early death like most zoo elephants.
Zoo Miami, Miami, Florida
Bored Crazy at Thirteen
A lonely life in a constricted space. Photo: In Defense of Animals
Zoo Miami landed on our 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list in 2019 for its callous disregard for the safety of its female elephants. Cita died after a violent clash with another female. Shortly before she died, Lisa was also injured. The males fare no better.
Ongard, a 13-year-old solo Asian bull elephant endures frequent invasive anal procedures to extract sperm. It is used for artificial insemination of even younger females at other zoos, around a decade before either would naturally mate in the wild. At just 13 years old, Ongard is already displaying zoochotic behavior. He swings his trunk wildly, a sign of acute stress, boredom and brain damage. Ongard was ripped from his family at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia in 2018 when he was just 7, and shipped across the world to breed at Zoo Miami.
Everything vital has been taken from Ongard, his family, friends and any semblance of natural life in the wild. He spends his days walking to and fro in his minuscule enclosure. We implore Zoo Miami to give Ongard the experience and joy of life as a real elephant, in a spacious, diverse and peaceful sanctuary.
What You Can Do
Thank you for learning about the plight of elephants incarcerated in the 10 Worst Zoos. In Defense of Animals has been publishing the annual 10 Worst Zoos list for 19 years. See which zoos were listed in previous years, learn how we determine which zoos are featured, and discover how the list makes a difference for elephants in captivity here.
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