10 Worst Zoos for Elephants 2020

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2020: A Bitter Year for Humans and Elephants

The year 2020 was one for the history books, with lives everywhere upended or tragically cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. As normal life ceased to exist, we learned a little of what captivity feels like. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders gave us a bitter, yet temporary taste of the imprisonment elephants and other animals experience in zoos their entire lives. Many elephants are separated without choice from those they once knew as a standard zoo practice. Others face complete social isolation from their own kind. All elephants in zoos face several diseases largely unique to captivity, some lethal. Untimely death and unnecessary suffering loom close-by, even for captive elephants in the “best” zoos. Of the elephants who perished in North America’s accredited zoos in 2020, two siblings died from a virus endemic to Asian elephants. Dead at one and five years, their only view of the world was through bars.

Despite the world’s sharp focus on suffering caused by confinement and disease, In Defense of Animals’ list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America for 2020 reveals that zoos continued business as usual in profiting off elephants’ lives throughout the pandemic — and concealed the price wild and captive elephants pay for zoo captivity.


Transfer Abuse

Many of the zoos on the 10 Worst Zoos list demonstrate how zoos engage in “transfer abuse,” 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. Elephants who suffer separation through transfer abuse are significantly more likely to perform abnormal “stereotypic” behaviors, a known indicator of compromised welfare. These strange repetitive movements are not seen in the wild and are a symptom of zoochosis — psychosis caused by confinement. It’s a response to the physical and psychological frustration of confined animals’ innate needs. Most zoo visitors do not realize that these odd behaviors can be stress-related.

For years, zoos wrongly claimed that repetitive transfers of male elephants don’t impact captive elephant society, because of an outdated belief that males are “loners” in the wild. But a 2020 study revealed that male African elephants aren’t quite the loners they appeared to be. Instead, when they strike off on their own as adolescents, they remain an essential part of the social fabric of elephant society, with older males passing along their wisdom to younger males. This upends two important human notions about elephants: that males are expendable and can therefore be targeted by trophy hunters with little impact; and that zoos can transfer males with no ill effects. Elephant culture in both males and females is passed down through generations.

In light of this new data, captive elephant facilities must stop breeding and transferring elephants because of the trauma it causes individuals piled on top of the cruelty inherent in captivity. Although the scientific case against transfer abuse has grown, the findings are still a mere inconvenience for zoos and other institutions. Zoos have a vested interest in exploiting elephants as commodities by trucking them from one location and climate to another, and breeding them so calves can spend their lifetimes in captivity that can subject them to painful diseases and ailments seldom, if ever, found in the wild.


Conservation of Wild Elephants is Impossible in Zoos

Zoos often respond with an excuse that captive elephants in North America and elsewhere outside of their natural ecosystems are insurance in case of extinction in the wild. This justification is used by zoos to spend many millions of dollars on new captivity structures, often diverted from directly benefiting wild elephants to prevent that extinction. No zoo elephant will be transferred to the wild.

For yet another year, the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list exposes how zoos considered by their supporters to be among the best in North America are ignoring the science — even when it comes to the most basic elephant welfare. Slowly but surely, zoos are killing captive elephants. Exposing this fact is the reason behind our annual list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, now in its seventeenth year.

It shouldn’t take a significant tragedy like COVID-19 to show us just how bad captive elephants have it. The science is sound: elephants can often barely survive in zoos, let alone thrive. It’s time to stop pretending we can improve this broken system and instead make one final transfer: turn over all captive elephants in zoos to accredited sanctuaries and end all attempts to import them from the wild as zoos fail elephants in captivity now as they always have.


10 Worst Zoos 2020:
  1. African Lion Safari, Hamilton, ON
  2. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, TX
  3. Pittsburgh Zoo, Pittsburgh, PA
  4. Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, NY
  5. Monterey Zoo, Salinas, CA
  6. Myrtle Beach Safari, Myrtle Beach, SC
  7. Natural Bridge Zoo, Natural Bridge, VA
  8. Memphis Zoo, Memphis, TN
  9. Cameron Park Zoo, Waco, TX
  10. Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake City, UT

Dishonorable Mention: Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, NY


2020 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America


#1 Worst Zoo - African Lion Safari, Ontario, Canada

The Ugly Business of Endless Elephant Trafficking

African Lion Safari is a hub for elephant breeding and trafficking supplying U.S. zoos. It forces elephants to perform unnatural and demeaning circus acts and give rides to tourists. Photo: Boris Kasimov

Boasting to be the facility with the most Asian elephants in North America — with 16 Asian elephants who have been forced to produce 21 calves — African Lion Safari, set in freezing-cold Ontario, Canada, is the #1 Worst Zoo because it is the epitome of an elephant exploitation business. This safari theme park intended to sell two mother elephants to Fort Worth Zoo thereby separating them from their two young calves. The “Safari” is an international hub selling adult elephants to other zoos, which receives and sends back elephants from distant zoos for years at a time at the expense of their families for breeding, forces elephants to perform demeaning tricks and carry people around on their backs, is set in a totally unsuitable cold climate, and dominates elephants with the threat of bullhooks.

African Lion Safari breeds and then sells captive elephants to zoos across North America — and had a pending sale of two elephants for a million dollars each with the #2 Worst Zoo. This Zoo, and others doing business with it, operates like an elephant-trafficking cartel.

The Safari has access to “animal loan and exchange programs, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan” through its accreditation with Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). This framework appears to give a green light for AZA-accredited zoos in the U.S. to buy elephants from African Lion Safari, even though it violates the AZA’s requirement of restricted contact — ensuring there is a safety barrier between elephants and humans — and no elephant rides. The AZA is also phasing out bullhooks — weapons designed to control elephants with pain and fear — at member facilities. Because Canada and CAZA allow bullhooks and elephant rides, and do not yet require restricted contact, the AZA-accredited zoos doing business with African Lion Safari are encouraging and subsidizing these clear abuses of elephants.

African Lion Safari has a long history of collusion with zoos in separating females from their tight-knit social groups, often as part of a series of family separations and transfers to other zoos. This “transfer abuse” violates elephants’ social, psychological, and emotional needs and promotes lifelong trauma. In the summer of 2020, Ft. Worth Zoo, the #2 Worst Zoo this year, offered to buy two females from African Lion Safari for $1 million each, plus a $200,000 bonus if one gives birth — the highest known price ever paid for elephants in North America. Emily, age 15, would be separated from Gigi, her six-year-old calf; while Nellie, age eight, would be taken from her mother, Natasha. In the wild, females stay with their families their entire lives.

A young elephant forced to balance on only front legs at African Lion Safari. Photo: CC Flickr

African Lion Safari makes elephant lives even more miserable by forcing them to perform demeaning tricks for tourists and carrying people around on their backs, while handlers stand by with bullhooks. These stresses are possibly what led one elephant to attack a handler who suffered serious injuries in 2019, in full view of nearby children and parents in line for cruel elephant rides. One family reported being traumatized seeing the employee thrown into the air and slammed against a wooden structure. A 14-year-old boy was leading an elephant when she stepped on him and broke his leg in 1995, and a "trainer" was crushed to death in 1989 by a bull elephant.

African Lion Safari is a cruel, dangerous, and profit-driven business supported by zoos. While Canada considers Senator Sinclair’s Jane Goodall Act to stop these abuses, elephants will continue to be denied who they are and what they need. Their last trip must be to an accredited sanctuary for life.

MARCH 5, 2021 UPDATE: Following the release of this 10 Worst Zoos list, Fort Worth Zoo and African Lion Safari announced the deal has been canceled! Our listing has been updated to reflect this victory for elephants. Learn more here.


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

$2 Million Dollar Dirty Deal Threatens Elephants Everywhere

Fort Worth Zoo in Texas offered a Canadian theme park $2 million for two elephants and in the process would separate two mothers from their calves. Photo: Wasif Malik/Flickr

Fort Worth Zoo offered $2 million to this year’s #1 Worst Zoo for Elephants to buy two female Asian elephants: eight-year-old Nellie and fifteen-year-old Emily. Fort Worth Zoo wanted to breed them and would have paid an additional $200,000 if a calf was born soon after their arrival. As the #2 Worst Zoo for Elephants in 2020, this dirty deal, and others like it, expose the zoo industry's powerful role in driving U.S. and international trade in traumatized elephants who suffer from serial "transfer abuse," breeding, and endless captivity.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the import, Fort Worth Zoo would pay African Lion Safari — a theme park in Ontario, Canada — to separate Nellie from her mother, and Emily from her six-year-old calf, Gigi. Transfers are known to cause stress to elephants, and scientific research associates them with repetitive stereotypic behaviors that are considered "an important indicator of compromised welfare.”


Fort Worth Zoo's financial offer incentivizes circuses and theme parks like African Lion Safari to increase their rate of cruel and often invasive breeding procedures so they may sell the babies who survive into lifetimes of captive confinement. It also encourages countries with wild elephants to kidnap them from the wild and sell them into servitude.

Elephant trafficking takes place on a national and global scale, with zoos trading and buying elephants from businesses linked to circuses and theme parks. At least three male elephants now at Fort Worth Zoo came from these sordid sources: Casey, Romeo, and Colonel Tusko. Tusko was born at African Lion Safari in 1991. He was sent to Carson and Barnes Circus at around five years old, then to that circus' Endangered Ark Foundation "sanctuary" before going back to African Lion Safari and in 2013, to Fort Worth Zoo. The females at Fort Worth Zoo fare no better. Rasha was kidnapped from the wild in Thailand in 1971 and transferred at least five times before arriving at Fort Worth Zoo.


Zoos often claim they are going to save elephants from extinction in the wild by creating artificial African and Asian elephant “herds” in North America — yet elephants are dying faster in zoos than they can reproduce. Even if zoos could create a self-sustaining herd, none of the elephants will ever be returned to the wild. By offering to spend $2 million dollars on captive elephants for its public exhibits, Fort Worth Zoo is sending the message that wild elephants cannot be saved, all while diverting money away from projects that could actually help elephants in the wild. 

This is the third time the Zoo has been listed on the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants. The Fort Worth Zoo elephants should be retired to a sanctuary where they'll never face another traumatic transfer or breeding procedure again.

MARCH 5, 2021 UPDATE: This entry has been updated to reflect that the deal between Fort Worth Zoo and African Lion Safari has been cancelled.


#3 Worst Zoo - Pittsburgh Zoo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

One Hundred Twenty-Two Years of Concrete Elephant Abuse

Pittsburgh Zoo has used indoor concrete floors harmful to elephants since 1898 even though studies indicate softer substrates substantially reduce painful and ultimately lethal foot, leg and joint disease. Photo: Britt Menhart

Pittsburgh Zoo, and its International Conservation Center (ICC), was ranked as the #1 Worst Zoo in the 2019 list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America for keeping elephants in cramped exhibits with concrete flooring. Zoo visits conducted by In Defense of Animals in 2020 revealed that the Zoo appears to have done nothing to improve conditions for the elephants, earning it the unenviable title of #3 Worst Zoo for Elephants in 2020. Pittsburgh Zoo continues to keep elephants confined in barns devoid of anything natural, and standing on critically harmful concrete floors — and it turns out the Zoo has been subjecting elephants to these same grim conditions for 122 years.

Concrete flooring is known to be a primary cause of foot and leg diseases, such as arthritis and foot lesions that are not typically seen in wild elephant populations. Chronic foot problems can cause elephants to walk unnaturally, producing musculoskeletal stresses often leading to arthritis and other diseases in their several-ton bodies. These cascading injuries can result in chronic pain and often death, and are one of the key reasons elephants die faster in captivity than in the wild.

Better flooring options are available and known to reduce the debilitating and deadly diseases caused by concrete under their feet. Instead, Pittsburgh Zoo has spent millions of dollars on new or upgraded facilities for its visitors, including a zipline; buying more animals; and constructing buildings to house female elephants for breeding, thereby sentencing their calves to a lifetime of captivity.

When Pittsburgh Zoo opened in 1898 as Highland Park Zoo, it received Gusky, a young female Asian elephant, from a nearby zoo that closed soon after importing her from India. Newspapers noted the concrete floors in the then-new building and later, Gusky’s sad life of being tied to a stake while constantly swaying — what today we know of as stereotypic behavior, a key indicator of chronic stress. Over a century later, the elephants imprisoned at Pittsburgh Zoo remain on indoor concrete floors and still exhibit repetitive stress behaviors, as shown by footage in this video recorded during an investigation by In Defense of Animals.

For 122 years, little has changed for elephants suffering on harmful concrete floors at Pittsburgh Zoo. Above: The elephant room in 1941. Below: The elephant room in 2019. Photos: Pittsburgh City Photographer, In Defense of Animals.

In August 2008, Pittsburgh Zoo established the International Conservation Center in Fairhope, PA, featuring barns costing $6 million, including an elephant "maternity barn" meant to warehouse twenty female African elephants. The ICC plan for mass elephant breeding has failed so far. Sadly, any baby elephants born there are destined for lifetimes in zoos, since captive-born elephants are not suitable for reintroduction into the wild. 

Transferring elephants repeatedly from one location to another and separating calves from their mothers can cause trauma. Moja had already been trafficked several times when she arrived at Pittsburgh Zoo. After the Zoo bred her, she birthed two calves. In 2015, the zoo cruelly separated Moja from her two calves, Victoria and Zuri, and shipped her to Oregon. In the wild, these female calves would have stayed with their mother’s herd for life.

Forcing elephants to suffer on concrete like it’s 1898 and trafficking elephants is barbaric. For over a century, Pittsburgh Zoo appears to have failed to replace the concrete floors in its elephant barns with a softer substrate, while spending money on elephant breeding infrastructure and tourist amenities. This is the Zoo’s fourth time on the 10 Worst Zoos list, showing it has no concerns for the well-being of the elephants it imprisons. 

Elephants don’t need ziplines. They require ample space, warm weather and soft, natural ground on which to roam. Only an accredited sanctuary is able to come close to approximating life in the wild for elephants. 

#4 Worst Zoo - Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, New York

One Foot in the Grave

Cold weather and cramped conditions lead to painful feet and joints. Photo: Kristina M D’Hondt Democrat and Chronicle

Frigid winters and captivity at Seneca Park Zoo in New York create a storm of debilitating ailments for African elephants. In 2019, female African elephant Chana died at only 37 years of age. Suffering from chronic foot ailments, as well as autoimmune skin disease, degenerative joint diseases, and other conditions, she reportedly lowered herself into a kneeling position one day. When she was unable to stand up again, the zoo euthanized her.

Two of the three remaining elephants, Jenny C and Lilac, are suffering from arthritis as well. Jenny C’s is advanced, painful, and debilitating. This is no coincidence.

Chana was moved from Jacksonville Zoo in Florida to Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, New York, in 2015 with life-long companion Moki. Both Zoos ignored their needs when they collaborated to ship both from a warm-weather climate to one that has extended cold and dark winters. For nearly five months of every year, the mean temperature is at or well below freezing. Seneca Park causes particularly egregious harm since the elephants must remain indoors for much of the cold winters. 

Elephants can tolerate cold and snow up to a point, but the climate at Seneca Park Zoo often requires them to stay inside heated barns. AZA accreditation standards are clear that whenever the temperature goes below forty degrees longer than sixty minutes for an elephant, supplemental heat or other measures must be implemented and elephants must be monitored every sixty minutes. The frequent and far colder outdoor temperatures that last for months at the Zoo cannot be mitigated this way, so the elephants have to remain in the barn much of the time. 

In Defense of Animals has measured the outdoor “yards” and barn, and found the outdoor yard is one-third smaller than the walled-in barn. The barn is about 0.87 acres, but it’s not open space. It’s divided into several steel-barred stalls. The outdoor “yards,” when available, are even smaller — one-third less in total. Outdoors, three large African elephants get only 0.54 acres for life, but even that is divided into three smaller parts at Seneca Park Zoo. That’s a terribly small space for elephants.

The small Seneca Park Zoo elephant exhibit comprises a yard and a stalled-barn where elephants are forced to shelter from the cold for long periods. Photo: Google Earth

Jenny C and Lilac were the only elephants at Seneca Park Zoo from 1979 to 2015. For Chana and Moki, their arrival at Seneca Park was the fifth time they were shipped to a different location, all before age thirty-four. This was the latest act of transfer abuse, which is known to cause trauma in elephants as they are taken from familiar surroundings and elephants to yet another strange place, again and again. 

Under these cold, restricted space conditions, it’s no wonder that of the three elephants at the Zoo, two are currently being treated for arthritis. Genny C, age 44, has painful, debilitating arthritis that began when she was only 34.  Lilac, age 43, has arthritis in her wrist. Since Chana was euthanized because of her suffering from severe arthritis as well, the pattern fits the science of how captivity kills elephants in zoos.

Because Genny C’s arthritis is in both her front legs, she this year underwent an unnatural tusk “trimming” procedure. Portions of her tusks have been sawn off in a bid to reduce the weight that strains her joints. Genny C likely would still have her tusks and healthy joints if she were not kept in zoo conditions. Arthritis and foot ailments are a leading cause of death in captive elephants, due in large part to the lack of exercise these animals are afforded. In the wild, elephants can walk 30-50 miles every day if the herd chooses to do so.

To help pay for their “geriatric” foot care, Seneca Park Zoo sells paintings by Lilac. Genny C is also made to paint. These activities are unnatural to elephants, not educational, and mislead people into believing that elephants enjoy both painting and their captivity.

No zoo currently in operation can come close to providing elephants with open expanses available to them in their home ecosystems in Asia and Africa, and the autonomy to experience and make decisions responding to the complexities and rich life those ecosystems have given elephants for millenia. 

The fast march to death at Seneca Park Zoo must end now. These African elephants deserve to be retired to a warm-weather sanctuary where they can once again be footloose in the sunshine.

#5 Worst Zoo - Monterey Zoo, Salinas, California

False Promises of Retirement and Sanctuary Life for Elephants

Elephants at Monterey Zoo are hardly retired. Photo: Rick Berg/Flickr

Monterey Zoo, located in Salinas, CA, claims to be a place where elephants can "retire" — but a life of public display, while being constantly dominated by human trainers to make them interact with tourists, can hardly be called retirement for elephants. This “retirement home” is where most of its elephants die very young, even by zoo standards. The average age of three of the five who died there was 22. 

Elephants Paula and Kristy were euthanized in 2019; Paula for severe osteochondrosis, Kristy for salmonella in her intestines and E.coli in her liver and intestines.

For years, Monterey Zoo ran the Elephants of Africa Rescue Society (EARS) which was founded by an exotic animal hobbyist who eventually established "Wild Things Animal Rentals Inc." for film productions. Despite its “sanctuary” moniker, EARS was notorious for hosting annual galas where people came into direct contact with elephants, sometimes without any physical boundary between humans and elephants. EARS was recently merged into its "parent" organization, Monterey Zoological Society, but the EARS website remains active, and elephant experiences continue at Monterey Zoo.

Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Monterey Zoo has encouraged people — including children — to come into close contact with elephants’ trunks, even though any elephant can carry tuberculosis and with enough exposure, become infected from people as well. Studies are still underway about which animals can catch or transmit COVID-19, and though there still “is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19” to humans based on limited studies, it is suspected the disease has already passed between humans and several species at zoos. Lions, tigers and other “big cats,” at Bronx Zoo, a Tennessee Zoo, and a Kentucky Zoo have tested positive, while at San Diego Zoo, gorillas tested positive for COVID-19.

Real sanctuaries are designed to provide for elephants’ needs first and foremost; they are never bred, and never put to work entertaining humans or allowed to come into unprotected contact with people.


Unprotected contact between elephants and humans is dangerous for reasons beyond disease transmission. A 2018 incident cited by PETA saw a trainer seriously injured after taking “aggressive action” on Monterey Zoo captive female African elephant Paula, illustrating the dangers of unprotected contact to both elephants and humans. As well as engaging in dangerous unprotected contact, the Zoo is being sued for using bullhook-like weapons to dominate and control elephants in violation of California’s ban on bullhooks and other pain-inflicting weapons. 

Hundreds of people have been killed by captive elephants, largely the result of so-called free contact approaches, which is one of the reasons the leading accreditation body, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, requires protected contact at accredited zoos. The only accreditation Monterey Zoo has managed to secure is from the “Zoological Association of America,” which is headed by the director of Pittsburgh Zoo — the #1 Worst Zoo for Elephants in 2019. This is the second time Monterey Zoo has been on our 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list. 

If the Monterey Zoo is truly sincere about giving these elephants the opportunity to retire, it should send them to a true sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

#6 Worst Zoo - Myrtle Beach Safari, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Bubbles, the Lonely Elephant Ignored by Tiger King

Bubbles, a female African elephant, has been socially isolated from other elephants for 36 years by notorious animal abuser Bhagavan Antle, featured in Netflix’ documentary, "Tiger King." Photo: JayPrehistoricPets/YouTube

The Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness made a big splash in 2020, documenting the abuses of tigers at a roadside zoo in Oklahoma where the animals are endlessly used for photographs and petting experiences. The exploitation of big cats at Myrtle Beach Safari was included in the series, but a major character was left out: Bubbles, a 38-year-old female African elephant who has been kept socially isolated from other elephants all her life. Instead, she has been used to make money for her captor, Bhavagan Antle, since she was two, earning Myrtle Beach Safari sixth place on our 2020 list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America.

Antle got his start decades ago as a traveling magician who used tigers, an elephant and other captives for his shows. Like a true magician, he has created the illusion he wasn’t abusing Bubbles the elephant, tiger cubs and other species. That continues to this day. 

Antle claims he rescued Bubbles after her herd was wiped out for ivory. But this magician got Bubbles from David Meeks of Hollywild Animal Park in 1984. Between 1982 and 1984, Meeks trafficked at least twenty-two wild-born, mostly two-year-old African elephant calves, including Bubbles, for his elephant-taking business. 

While whole herds were being wiped out in massive killing programs, some calves were set aside for zoos, circuses, and private “owners” in the U.S. Meeks and others used this opportunity to sell and “own” elephants. For 36 years, Antle has denied Bubbles’ right to, and innate elephant need for, essential social and physical relationships with other elephants. Like so many captive elephants in zoos and circuses, she witnessed her parents brutally massacred. Even when Bubbles was only two years old, Antle began to drag her from his former Buckingham Zoological Park in Virginia to work in a Wisconsin fair, where people were seen riding on Bubbles’ back.

Throughout her life and continuing to today, Antle has forced Bubbles to perform demeaning tricks and displays for audiences, such as wearing a Santa outfit. Bubbles’ needs are denied — not even acknowledged to exist. Antle encourages people to climb all over her body and ride her, as if she weren’t an elephant. Most often, countless, uninformed tourists hug her trunk and pose for photos only Myrtle Beach Safari is allowed to take — for profit.

Antle’s long record of conflict with the federal government’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stretches back to 1984 and continues today. In October 2020, he was charged with animal cruelty and trafficking, for which he faces multiple felony counts, including violations of the Endangered Species Act and nine misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. While these charges are related to lion cubs and at least one adult, they do nothing to address the situation of Bubbles. 

How long Antle can keep up his illusions hiding what he does depends on informing the public about what is real and what is not. This is Myrtle Beach Safari’s second time on our list. What is certain is that Bubbles deserves to be taken to an accredited sanctuary and leave Antle and his safari far behind.


#7 Worst Zoo - Natural Bridge Zoo, Natural Bridge, Virginia

Failed, Mocked, and Still Lonely at the Zoo

Lonely captive Asha was mocked and derided by her captor in front of Virginia politicians. Photo: Free All Captive Elephants

This is Natural Bridge Zoo’s seventh consecutive year being featured on the list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants — and in these seven years, little has changed for 38-year-old African elephant Asha. She has been forced to spend 33 of her 36 years held in social isolation since arriving at this roadside zoo that has accrued nearly 150 Animal Welfare Act violations. She is held in a small barren enclosure during the winters where she is essentially in storage. During the summers, Asha is forced to give rides to thousands of people each year, while under the constant threat of the bullhook.

A glimmer of hope emerged in 2020 as a bill spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States and supported by In Defense of Animals made its way through the Virginia state legislature aimed at prohibiting public contact with “dangerous” captive animals. The bill included elephants within its purview and would have banned elephant riding throughout the state. However, Karl Mogensen, owner of Natural Bridge Zoo, lobbied along with other groups to exclude elephants from the bill. During a hearing, Mogensen provided testimony where he sexualized Asha, referring to her as a “centerfold for elephant Playboy.” Ultimately, elephants were excluded from the bill, leaving Asha and the public unprotected to this day.

Legislators didn’t get the whole story about how dangerous captive elephants can be. While elephants can be gentle, peaceful beings, the conditions of captivity can drive them to aggression, and unfortunately captive elephant attacks are quite common. Asha has attacked her handler, and attacked and killed another elephant in 1996 — facts which clearly demonstrate that elephants should be considered dangerous and that activities such as encouraging humans to ride on their backs can prove dangerous or even lethal. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums mandates protected contact — a barrier between elephants and humans, and in 2002 removed a provision from its accreditation standards of care that allowed for elephant riding; Natural Bridge Zoo abides by neither. Natural Bridge Zoo is not AZA-accredited, and will never be if it continues to treat Asha as poorly as it does. 

Failed by her captor and Virginia legislators, long-suffering Asha needs a miracle similar to the one experienced by Nosey to get to the accredited sanctuary she deserves.


#8 Worst Zoo - Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee

Even the Oldest Elephants Die Young in Zoos

Captive elephants at Memphis Zoo have sad histories that only an accredited sanctuary can heal. Photo: David Ellis/Flickr

Memphis Zoo is one of many zoos with circus connections, having held nine elephants over the years who were subjected to these cruel businesses that are proven to harm elephants. In September 2020, one of those elephants, Tyranza, was put on hospice care and was eventually euthanized after her health dramatically declined. She was just 56 years old. 

Memphis Zoo touted Tyranza as being the oldest African elephant in North America — but this isn’t saying much. Zoos frequently argue that elephants who live to great ages, whether captive or wild, are not representative of the lifespans of most elephants. "Uncontrollable variables" are another shield used by zoos against inconvenient data from studies into how long elephants live overall in zoos versus in the wild. But zoos cannot defend against one undeniable fact: research shows elephants die far younger in zoos than in the wild. 

Tyranza, dead at 56, was a relatively long-lived outlier for a captive elephant, but she might have lived much longer if she hadn’t been removed from her wild home. Wild female African elephants can live into their 70s — even though they face extra dangers in the wild. But comparing captive and wild elephant lifespans is a diversion from comparing what truly matters: captive versus wild elephant lives. Imprisoned elephants face lives of deprivation which bear no resemblance to the rich, natural context wild elephants have when living in ecosystems in Asia and Africa.

Born in the wild in 1965, Tyranza was captured and then forced into the entertainment business, including two years at a traveling circus. When she was 12 years old, Tyranza was eventually transferred to Memphis Zoo. By this young age she had already been cruelly separated from other elephants at least four times. Each transfer can cause fresh devastation for elephants, who form strong bonds and are highly social animals.

Tyranza is survived at Memphis Zoo by four female elephants including Daisy and Bambi, who sadly share similar backgrounds. They were added to the Memphis Zoo exhibit after suffering 42 years in circuses, each of them also suffering four transfers. Despite being “retired” from the circus, these elephants are still working for their keep, forced to be on public display day after day in small enclosures that erode elephants’ minds and bodies through lack of mental stimulation and exercise. 

The only form of true retirement for zoo and circus elephants is within an accredited sanctuary that does not breed elephants, force them to interact with humans, and that provides adequate social groups.

#9 Worst Zoo - Cameron Park Zoo, Waco, Texas

Lone Elephant in Lone Star State

Tembo and Tanya were already an inadequate social grouping before Tanya's death. Photo: Wil C. Fry/Flickr

At Cameron Park Zoo in Waco, Texas, African female elephants Tanya and Tembo were held captive together for 13 years. Having only two elephants housed together is a woefully inadequate social setting for elephants, who live in herds of around a dozen or more individuals in the wild. But in September 2020, Tanya died, leaving Tembo all alone.

Tanya, captured from the wild as a baby, was just 41 years old when she died. As often occurs when elephants die in captivity, zoos frequently rely on data for captive lifespans, not those in the wild. Lifespans are variously cited as mean age, meaning half of elephants are alive above a certain age, half dead below that. When quoting an average age at death, it can be distorted by extremes on either end. When maximum lifespans are cited, they are exceptions. This causes some disagreement about how wild elephant research is cited by zoos and elephant advocates wanting elephants freed to accredited sanctuaries. Still, zoos too often refer to an ill or deceased elephant as geriatric when in the wild they would still be productive and healthy members of the herd. Female elephants can remain fertile into their sixties. Research reliably demonstrates that wild elephants live longer overall than those in zoos — and without the suffering and diseases of captivity. 

Tembo, now 44 years old, was also captured from the wild and has been at Cameron Park Zoo since 1979. She has previously been forced to endure solitary confinement for years at a time at the Zoo until being provided with her latest companion, who has now died prematurely. Four elephants have died at Cameron Park Zoo at an average age of just 25. The Zoo says it will be exploring other companions for Tembo through Species Survival Programs — which are frequently used as an excuse to breed more elephants into lifetimes of captivity so that zoos can continue profiting off of their lives. Breeding also drives traumatic transfer abuse such as that suffered by traumatized Zoe. Now at Kansas City Zoo, Zoe suffered four transfers by age 23 — all after being taken from Africa at age two when her family was slaughtered.

Any decision other than sending Tembo to an accredited sanctuary will be one made out of a profit motive rather than Tembo’s best interest. This is Cameron Park Zoo’s first time on our 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list.

#10 Worst Zoo - Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake City, Utah

Accredited but Still Endangering Elephants & Children

Hogle Zoo puts elephants through years of social isolation and exposes children and elephants alike to pathways of potential airborne diseases. Photo: Paul T. Derdzinski

Hogle Zoo was featured on the 2019 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for keeping mother-daughter duo Christie and Zuri alone in a small, cold-weather enclosure. They are still alone. Keeping only two female elephants together, instead of a minimum of three, violates the AZA’s elephant standards that recommend larger social groupings. But this accredited zoo has been listed again on the 2020 list in tenth place for additional best-practices violations.

Hogle Zoo has been allowing members of the public to come into close or direct contact with elephants’ trunks — notably very young children and even an infant. The holes in the cage through which the trunks emerge are likely large enough to drag a child through. Potentially aggressive, unpredictable elephant behavior is the reason behind protected contact, a life-saving AZA standard requiring an effective barrier between elephants and the public and zoo staff. The high profile killing of captive gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 after a child entered his zoo exhibit tragically shows how contact poses danger to both animals and children.

Another dangerous factor arising from direct contact between humans and other animals is disease transmission. The tip of an elephant’s trunk is akin to the nostrils on a human face; where transmissible diseases are present, touching these parts of an elephant potentially poses a risk of disease. Captivity can compromise elephants’ immune systems, and tuberculosis — a deadly, highly infectious disease — has long existed in U.S. captive elephant populations. Captive elephants have infected numerous zoo staff at other facilities in recent years via zoonotic transmission. But humans aren’t the only ones at risk: a process known as reverse zoonosis involves humans infecting elephants with TB. Reverse zoonosis is suspected to have been the way tigers in the Bronx Zoo became infected with COVID-19 during the early phases of the pandemic, and more recently, the gorillas at the San Diego Zoo. Zoonotic transmission can be especially dangerous for young infants and children whose immune systems are still developing.


This year, during the pandemic, Hogle Zoo began offering a brand-new revenue-generating “feeding experience.” The coronavirus has hit businesses hard across the country, but this is no excuse to further exploit elephants by allowing people to feed them, thereby putting animals and people at risk — especially children. Now is the time for Hogle Zoo to begin looking at permanent accredited sanctuary retirement so Christie and Zuri can finally have the company of several other elephants so essential to their well-being.



Dishonorable Mention:

Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, New York

Unenviable Record for Dead Babies

Babies Batu and Ajay died at Rosamond Gifford Zoo within days of each other. Photos: In Defense of Animals

For many so-called baby elephant “triumph” celebrated by the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, there are often opposite tragedies. Rosamond Gifford Zoo has a track record for baby elephant deaths: 7 out of 10 calves have died there since 2005, all less than five years old. Three were stillborn, three from a virus endemic to Asian elephants, and one at five days old who had an accident at the Zoo’s outdoor pool. In addition, Babe, an adult, died following an unsuccessful caesarean section to remove a stillborn calf in 1990.

Less than two years after Rosamond Gifford Zoo celebrated its latest newborn baby, Ajay, the Zoo announced his death. Then, two days later, his five-year-old brother Batu also died. Mali was the mother of both who succumbed to the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV).

Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s breeding of Asian elephants is what landed the Zoo a place on the 10 Worst Zoos list last year. It has shipped elephants for breeding to and from African Lion Safari, this year’s #1 Worst Zoo for Elephants, and also to notorious commercial exploiters like Have Trunk Will Travel which is now called “The Preserve.” Elephants remaining at Rosamond Gifford Zoo have fared no better: female Romani has been made to bear four calves. One died from EEHV and one was stillborn. Of her two surviving offspring, male Emmett was shipped to England at age six and his sperm has been shipped to other European zoos. Between 2002-2016, nine of Emmett’s fifteen elephant babies have died, all very young.

Doc, the only remaining male at the zoo was documented in 2019 by an In Defense of Animals investigator exhibiting zoochotic behavior, the endless repetition of behaviors like swaying back and forth due to the stresses of captivity common in many zoo-captive animals from many species.


In the same year, In Defense of Animals recorded a Rosamond Gifford representative stating the Zoo’s intention to ship Doc and his then still-alive son Batu to other zoos, but the Zoo denied this intention after In Defense of Animals exposed the plans.

Young Ajay and Batu are only the latest tragic victims of Rosamond Gifford Zoo’s breeding cycle: the Zoo celebrates a birth, the baby dies very young, or for those who manage to survive infanthood, they are shipped back and forth endlessly to reproduce and continue the cycle. None of this is acceptable. Rosamond Gifford Zoo must stop forcing elephants to suffer the often lethal consequences of breeding and send these suffering elephant families to accredited sanctuaries.


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