How Do Elephants Breed at the Zoo?

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The Truth About Baby Elephants

They're big. They're cute. They suffer.

Baby animals boost zoo ticket sales like nothing else. Elephant babies are among the most valuable promotional tools of all, and zoos will stop at nothing to get them. In Defense of Animals is exposing the sad reality behind cute baby elephants at the zoo.

How Elephants Breed in Captivity

Elephants suffer and fail to thrive in captive environments which is why they breed so poorly in captivity. As a result, zoos take control of elephant reproduction away from elephants into their own hands, choosing domination over decency. 

To make baby elephants, zoos inflict invasive procedures on elephants’ most sensitive and private parts. They resort to invasive, abusive artificial insemination (AI) to force elephant pregnancies which only occasionally produce money-making babies. 

Elephant Artificial Insemination (AI)

In 2018, the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky announced a baby elephant was on the way. Mikki, a 32-year-old African elephant, was pregnant. What the zoo did not share, is that this pregnancy was forced upon Mikki through repetitive, clumsy, and very invasive AI attempts.

The gory details of elephant reproduction in zoos looks a lot like sexual assault. To make Mikki pregnant, Louisville Zoo chained Mikki by one front leg and tethered both of her rear legs with ropes. The bonds immobilized her so she was unable to move while keepers' attempted “successful” penetrations into her three-foot long reproductive tract.

The Louisville Zoo — which has been shamed three times on our list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants — revealed that it forced Mikki to endure nine brutal AI attempts and three “practice” sessions in less than two years between 2014 and 2016. 

Mikki's calf Scotty died at age three from colic in 2010. Mikki then suffered seven years of repeated and failed artificial insemination attempts by Louisville Zoo to have Fitz. Photo: Matt Stone/Courier Journal, Louisville Courier Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Dead Baby Elephants

In captive elephants, the infant mortality rate is a shocking 40%. Captive facilities keep breeding elephants despite the deaths, and continue to breed by any means.

At Louisville Zoo, Mikki had a baby Scotty, following one of several pregnancies forced upon her through AI. In 2010, her 3-year-old son died of colic. Since then, the Louisville Zoo has attempted to impregnate her again and again. 

Baby elephants mean big bucks for zoos, luring visitors in the gates and driving ticket sales.

Conception through AI has a low rate of success. A 2012 Seattle Times report Elephants Are Dying Out in America’s Zoos found that, “success has been spotty, with miscarriages and premature and stillborn deaths from artificial-insemination pregnancies reaching 54 percent.”

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

Unwilling Elephant Sperm “Donors”

There is no real “natural” elephant mating at zoos. Zoos shuffle bull elephants around the country like chess pieces with the hope they will mate with females. These transfers are terribly cruel and exploitative, as the males’ welfare and vital social bonds are disregarded when they are treated as living “vessels” of sperm. In Defense of Animals calls this mistreatment “transfer abuse.”

Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV)

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is a major risk to baby elephants born in zoos. EEHV attacks endothelial cells and ruptures blood vessels. The disease progresses rapidly through the body, causing catastrophic blood loss. The babies die of organ failure or hemorrhagic shock. 

In 2009, ABQ BioPark Zoo celebrated when 17 year-old Rozie gave birth to her first baby, a girl they named Daizy. In 2012, the zoo released a video in which they boasted that their “Daizy Diagnostics Lab” had allowed Daizy to “become a model of how to counteract the threat of EEHV in a captive herd.” 

Less than ten years later, Rozie had been forced to bear two more babies. Daizy died in 2009 at the age of five. Thorn died on Christmas day 2021 at the age of three. Jazmine died just eight days later. She was eight years old. All three died from EEHV. 

It is well-documented that elephants mourn their dead. Rozie and her mother Alice watched all three babies suffer nightmarish deaths.

Captive Elephant Breeding Is a Conservation Con

Zoos acknowledge the deadly risks yet continue to recklessly experiment with elephants’ lives. Huge amounts of time and money are spent on abusive captive breeding practices that harm and kill elephants in zoos. The resources zoos spend on breeding programs could truly conserve and protect elephants in the wild.

No baby born in zoo captivity in the U.S. is ever relocated to the wild. Elephants born in zoos are forced to suffer a lifetime of suffering captivity-related illnesses before an early death. Captive elephant breeding management practices are just one of many reasons why zoo captivity for elephants is such a cruel and unnatural existence.

Don’t support zoos, or fall for their false conservation claims. Remember that zoo babies are really jail babies who have been created as a marketing tool to manipulate the public. 

Speak up about the horrible cruelty forced upon elephants in zoos. Commit to supporting conservation — and conception — in the wild, not in captivity.

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