10 Worst Zoos for Elephants Fireside Chat: Q&A

10 Worst Zoos for Elephants Fireside Chat: Q&A

At our recent Fireside Chat for our 2023 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, we received many questions that we were not able to answer during the webinar. We appreciate your desire to learn more about captive elephants and want to thank you for these thoughtful questions.
Here are the responses from our Elephant Consultant, Courtney Scott. 

  1. Do you work with NHP?
    Yes, we do.

  2. How many actual elephant sanctuaries are located in the USA? Is there a list of these locations? 
    There are three in the U.S.: Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in northern California, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, and Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA) in Georgia.

  3. Does In Defense of Animals connect with the US zoo organization - the name is slipping my mind - that could do much to free elephants?  I know that when our director of the Detroit Zoo in 2005 (or thereabouts), the US Zoo organization 'penalized' the Detroit Zoo for several months.
    You are referring to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). We work to educate the public about the inadequate protections provided to elephants by the AZA. We of course fundamentally disagree with keeping elephants in captivity, so that would preclude us from working with the organization other than to encourage this zoo industry group to stop breeding and importing elephants. And yes, we know about the Detroit Zoo. We are grateful that former Zoo Director Ron Kagen sent the zoo’s two elderly elephants to sanctuary despite the temporary loss of AZA accreditation.

  4. I was told that Billy goes into musth fairly often. Isn't that a good reason why he shouldn't be at the L.A. Zoo, as Tina is too old to reproduce?
    Yes, we agree. The zoo has been trying for years to extract sperm from Billy to no avail, to send to other zoos with younger females.

  5. Do any of the elephant sanctuaries take in bull elephants?
    Yes, they all do, though building more robust fencing for males is more challenging and expensive.

  6. What are the reasons behind the zoo refusing to release him to a sanctuary?
    All zoos say the same thing: the zoo is the elephant's "home." It would be traumatic to move the elephant. The elephant is too old or is happy and thriving in his zoo enclosure. Billy, the zoo claims, has been at the zoo for so long that it would be too disruptive for him to move. Zoos often claim sanctuaries are no better than zoos, and in sanctuary, they won't receive the "great care" they get in zoos.

  7. Are bull elephants normally put on exhibit. or are they kept behind the scenes, out of the public eye?
    They are on exhibit unless they contract a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis (TB), and then they are quarantined.

  8. How do you debunk and reply to people who say that zoos are for conservation and education and that elephants serve as ambassadors for elephants in the wild?
    There are many ways we do that, you can check them all out on our resource page.

  9. When bull elephants are allowed to be with the females, how long are they kept with them? 
    To my knowledge, there is no set amount of time; it depends on the relationship between the male and female, and no doubt the zoo does blood draws periodically to see if the female is pregnant. If she is pregnant, the zoo will likely move the male away, as there is always a possible danger to the female if the male exhibits aggression towards her. Elephants can move away from aggressive or bullying elephants in the wild. There are many places they can go to escape, but none in the zoo.

  10. How do you explain in detail the breeding program for elephants where they violate the elephant's bodily autonomy? Breeding programs are horrendous.
    Yes, they are. Females often do not go into estrus as often or regularly as they do in the wild, so it is difficult for zoos to manage pregnancies. Of course, males can be challenging for a number of reasons. They are highly unpredictable when they are in musth. Learn more about captive elephant breeding programs and why they are problematic.

  11. Do you think that the young bulls at the Houston Zoo learn this behavior from the older elephants? Houston is a hellhole for all animals.
    Yes, it is. Young bulls do learn from their elders, both female and male. Still, they have little opportunity to learn the natural behavior of male elephants as their constricted life governs that behavior in a zoo and does not represent their true, wild natures.

  12. What is the policy of the organization that sanctions zoos? Are they interested in the welfare of the animals, or are they mostly carrying water for the institutions that help fund their existence?
    The AZA is a zoo industry organization that provides its member zoos with accreditation based on the zoo's compliance with AZA standards for elephant care. Those standards need to be revised to provide for the complex needs of elephants, including, most importantly, the need for adequate space. We highlighted the problem with the AZA in our 2021 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list.

  13. Would you please distinguish between Asian and African elephants?
    Asian elephants are smaller in size and have smaller ears than African elephants. Here is more about the distinctions between Asian and African elephants.

  14. Do you reach out to the Hispanic communities, educating them on proper animal care and other animal issues like this?
    Right now, we are only reaching out to the Hispanic community about elephants in zoos with our Free Billy fliers distributed to zoo visitors at the LA Zoo and our Free Sdudla fliers at Zoo Tampa. The fliers are translated into Spanish.

  15. Are bull elephants "neutered" (castrated)? If so, at what age?  Last, does that change their behavior somewhat or not at all?
    For the most part, elephants are not castrated because elephant testes are hidden deep within their abdomens, and it's a precarious and dangerous operation for the elephant. If they are castrated, it would happen when they are young, not as a mature adult. Chemical castration is now an option and has been used on African elephants, shrinking their testes by 60% and dramatically reducing sperm production. The reason this is done is because there are areas in Africa where elephants are abundant, and human/elephant conflict is a huge issue. There are successful solutions to ease these conflicts; one is to build and maintain corridors that allow elephants safe passage between their migration routes, spanning country borders. Zoos have no incentive to castrate bulls, as their goal is to breed.

  16. Sperm extraction? I guess that answers my questions. So if a sanctuary is not into breeding, does it castrate, and does that change behavior?
    Sanctuaries have to manage bulls so they are not with females, especially during musth. They do not castrate; they don't want to interfere with an elephant's natural behavior or anatomy. The goal is for them to live out their lives as close to the wild, bull elephant nature intended. It is a compromise, as even sanctuaries are captivity. And yes, castration does tend to change an elephant's behavior. Bo, for instance, at Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA), the elephant sanctuary in Georgia, was castrated when he was young before he came to the sanctuary. He is able to be in the same area with the two females, and they all get along just fine, as Bo has no aggressive tendencies at all.

  17. Elephants are extremely intelligent beings. Do any of these zoos use any type of enrichment for these elephants?
    Zoos provide tires, logs, and timed feeders, which are considered enrichment by zoos.

  18. What is Tom Vilsack and the USDA’s response to all of this abuse? Like elsewhere, does the USDA either not inspect or inspect with no action?
    The USDA will investigate if a report is made about abuse that is witnessed and recorded. However, it is not easy to get this kind of evidence, and the USDA does not often inspect or enforce actions against violations.

  19. Wait, these people are zoologists. Shouldn't they know that these conditions are totally inappropriate and egregiously inhumane?
    My opinion is yes they do know. It's hard to know what they are thinking but I imagine they experience cognitive dissonance on a regular basis and deny to themselves the cruelty of zoo confinement.

  20. Is it true that elephants in zoos are not permitted to breed naturally?
    They are encouraged to breed, but I would not call it "natural." The male and female do not choose each other as they would in the wild; they are forced into the same area for a period of time, and the zoo hopes they will mate. When this doesn't happen, many zoos attempt artificial insemination with extracted sperm.

  21. What is the average lifespan of an elephant in a zoo setting? In a circus?
    Zoos: 17 years, 60-70 in the wild
    Circus: This study shows deaths in circuses over 22 years; however, it notes, “Information regarding the deaths and injuries of captive elephants is difficult to obtain. This list is, therefore, probably incomplete.” Despite that, it shows many premature deaths; the majority are older.

  22. What about roadside zoos? Aren’t most of them even worse than the established municipal zoos?
    According to this article, Roadside Zoos ( there are 3,000 roadside zoos. Yes, they are worse, but as mentioned above, AZA zoos are not all that much better when it comes to the mental and physical health of the elephants.

  23. Do any of the zoos have ponds for elephants? In documentaries, they often show elephants in water - don't they need water baths for their skin?
    Yes, zoos often provide water features such as a waterfall or pond, but it is nowhere near the size or depth of what they have in the wild or sanctuary. And even with these features, we see elephants swaying and bobbing right near the water, so it is not improving the quality of their life to any degree.

  24. Have any of your prior 10 Worst Zoos freed their elephants...perhaps due to your (and others) concerns?
    Yes, the San Francisco Zoo and the Toronto Zoo, to name two, were on our 10 Worst Zoos list, and those zoos sent their elephants to sanctuary and closed their elephant exhibits. Here is a complete list of zoos that closed their exhibits. The majority of these zoos have appeared on our 10 Worst Zoos at least once and often more than once.

  25. Is the list in order of worst to less bad?

  26. No African elephants?
    There are a number of zoos with African elephants, including Dallas, Sedgwick County, Kansas City, and Atlanta, to name a few.

  27. Has there been any success in buying out the elephant and sending it to a sanctuary?
    Buying elephants is not an option, but a number of zoos have sent their elephants to sanctuary.

  28. Speaking of snow, does IDA have any comments on what I believe is the Edmonton, Canada, zoo that has snow for many months?
    We continue to work to help free Lucy at the Edmonton Valley Zoo to sanctuary. Please sign and share our alert calling for her freedom.

  29. With the technology that exists today, why wouldn't the zoos transport the sperm rather than the bulls?
    They do that now, though it is not an easy operation. The sperm must be frozen and does not keep its motility for long. However, a new procedure is now in place in some areas, cryopreservation, that allows frozen sperm to be kept much longer. And whatever method is used, more zoos have been using artificial insemination (AI). The problem with AI, besides the gross invasion of both males and females, is that three times as many males are produced from AI. Males are significantly harder to manage in captivity, and fewer of them can go to sanctuary.

  30. Why are zoos breeding elephants anyway?
    To populate zoos as it is much harder to import elephants from the wild.

  31. Does In Defense of Animals encourage 'protest' behavior at these zoo entrances?
    Yes, we have worked with a number of elephant advocacy groups and provided materials for their protests.

  32. What happens to female and male elephants when they can no longer breed?
    It depends on the zoo; some keep them until they die, a few lucky elephants go to the sanctuary, and sadly, some are zoothanized, killed before their time to make space to bring in a viable breeder or for some other zoo convenience.

  33. Do you know if there is any legislation currently on the floor to ban taking elephants from the wild and ending breeding for zoos?
    In 2022, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule that would amend the Endangered Species Act to improve regulations on imports of live elephants and trophies.

    In Defense of Animals created an alert to strengthen the ban, and we are eagerly waiting to see if the amendment to do that is enacted.

  34. What are your thoughts on the Elephant Discovery Center in Tennessee?
    That is a part of the Elephant Sanctuary, which provides a retirement home for zoo and circus elephants, so we heartily approve.

  35. Who promotes the zoos? Do local news venues promote them?
    See our notes above about the AZA, which promotes zoos, and also local media, which often gets advertising dollars from zoos, promotes them as well.

  36. Although no elephant should be in captivity at a zoo, are there no "quality" minimum standards for these exhibits? How do they even pass muster?
    See our comments above about the AZA, the industry organization that provides Standards of Elephant Care that are woefully inadequate to satisfy the needs of elephants.

  37. Are there any efforts to discourage unified school districts from doing field trips to their local zoos?
    Not that I am aware of, though individual teachers have helped to educate children. We are working on developing resources for kids; stay tuned.

  38. How is that going with Happy?
    There is a resolution in the New York City Council, to be reintroduced this year. (Int. 963-2022).

  39. Are there any efforts in the works to free that poor mama who is trying to kill her babies?
    We have lobbied for all three of the females at the Oregon Zoo, including Rose-Tu, to go to the sanctuary that has offered to take them. Still, the zoo has refused to let them go.

  40. How does everyone feel about Ringling Bros with its new animal-free circus?  Are people going to hold it accountable for its Elephant Conservation Center and using its elephants for breeding in zoos across the nation?
    We are very concerned about Ringling's intentions to breed the elephants, and our understanding is that the males are kept indoors chained. But we need more investigation to confirm that.

  41. What about the roadside zoos?  Aren’t most of them even worse than the established municipal zoos?
    Yes, but accredited zoos are not all that much better when you see the medical records of the elephants; they are all suffering from disease and depression.

  42. Whatever happened to NOSEY the elephant???
    She is happily living at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

  43. Whatever happened to the elephant that Cher played a part in saving? I don't remember what happened to that elephant.
    was rescued and sent to the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary and is thriving in his new home.

  44. PAWS Sanctuary and Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee are accredited by GFAS - Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. Elephant Aid International (EAI) is not as Carol Buckley uses free contact which is not acceptable. What’s your stance?
    I used to think that protected contact was the only acceptable option. However, I have since learned there is more nuance to it. If you haven't seen our webinar with Carol, I recommend watching it as she provides information about the different reasons for using protected vs. free contact. For instance, she and Tarra have lived together for most of Tarra's life since she was a 1-year-old, so Tarra is comfortable and, in fact, bonded with Carol. When Tarra was at The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in protected contact, she acted up and was very disturbed. At ERNA, Carol allows the elephants full autonomy, so it's up to them what they prefer. She uses protected contact with Mundi who has been isolated and alone most of her life and apparently has had no good experience with humans. So it really depends on the elephant and what is best for them, and Carol certainly never uses bullhooks or any coercion whatsoever. The elephants are free to do as they please. And think about the fact that no sanctuary in Asia uses protected contact; it is all free contact, the same as sanctuaries in Africa, such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. GFAS does not certify any Asian sanctuaries, yet many of them are doing a good job helping rescue elephants. Zoos, of course, do need to use protected contact, as elephants in zoos do not have any autonomy, the keepers are not always well trained, and free contact can be dangerous to the keeper and lead to abuse of the elephant.


Watch the 10 Worst Zoos Fireside Chat.


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  • Write letters to the editor of your local paper if your city has a zoo with elephants.
  • Start a conversation with friends and your community, especially parents with school-age children and educate them about the cruelty of keeping elephants in zoos. Ask the kids to observe the elephants' behavior and make their own assessment of how happy they are.
  • Join or organize a protest at your local zoo.
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