MEDIA RELEASE: Louisville Zoo to Shut Down its Elephant Exhibit!

MEDIA RELEASE: Louisville Zoo to Shut Down its Elephant Exhibit!

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (March 18, 2024) — After years of campaigning by In Defense of Animals, Louisville Zoo is sending its last two elephants to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. The move will be a mammoth victory for animal welfare, ending five decades of confining far-roaming elephants in a tiny enclosure.

In its announcement, Louisville Zoo admirably acknowledged a truth dawning across the captive animal industry — zoos cannot provide for elephants’ complex needs:

Like many institutions, the Louisville Zoo has arrived at a crossroads of tradition and reality. While elephants have been a featured species for most of the Zoo’s 54-year history, our recognition of the species’ complex social structure has evolved dramatically. Wild elephants typically live in herds comprised of multi-generational, related females and young males, led by an experienced matriarch. Relocation to The Elephant Sanctuary ensures lifelong companionship for Mikki and Punch in a safe, expansive setting.

Eleven thousand people emailed former Louisville Zoo Director John T. Walczak supporting In Defense of Animals’ call to relocate the elephants to a sanctuary. The nonprofit placed Louisville Zoo on its list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants three years in a row — in 2017, 2018 and most recently, in 2019. Each time, In Defense of Animals highlighted the failure of Louisville Zoo to provide for the basic needs of the elephants.

Mikki suffered the loss of two of her offspring. 3-year-old Scotty perished from colic, and 3-year-old Fitz died from elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV). After Scotty died in 2010, Mikki endured seven years of failed, highly invasive artificial insemination attempts until she finally got pregnant and gave birth to Fitz in 2019.

The zoo explains that they cannot care for two "geriatric" elephants, and their Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) accreditation requires that they house a minimum of three elephants. 54-year-old African elephant Mikki has indeed survived a long time for a zoo elephant. However, in Africa, elephants live into their 60s. Punch, at 39, would be in her prime if she had been allowed to remain in her home country in Asia. But these elephants were captured from the wild as youngsters and forced to live in a crowded, noisy city zoo. 

In Defense of Animals is grateful the elephants are packing up for a new multi-acre home at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. From 2025, they can roam on acres of grass, forage on trees and plants, and take a dip in a cool, refreshing pond.

The zoo plans to repurpose the elephant exhibit as a rhino enclosure. It is doubtful that the zoo will ever keep elephants in the future due to the high price tag. Per the zoo, "A state-of-the-art elephant habitat is estimated to cost over $100 million." 

When Zoo Knoxville sends its last elephant, Tonka, to the same sanctuary, Louisville Zoo will become the 36th zoo to close its elephant exhibit. 

Courtney Scott, Elephant Consultant for In Defense of Animals, said, “We congratulate the Louisville Zoo for making the compassionate and wise choice. Mikki and Punch’s retirement has been our goal for years, and we are thrilled that another of our 10 Worst Zoos will end elephant misery. Louisville Zoo must be applauded for its public admission that zoos cannot provide for elephants’ complex needs and for aligning with science by sending its elephants to sanctuary. We strongly urge Louisville Zoo to stay out of the elephant business and keep its elephant exhibit shuttered for all time. All zoos with elephants should follow Louisville Zoo's example, retire their elephants to sanctuary, and forever shutter their elephant exhibits, as 34 zoos have done. Elephants suffer terribly in captivity. It is time to birth a new, more humane future for elephants. We congratulate Louisville Zoo for this momentous and evolved choice."


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LEARN MORE: 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants

CONTACT: Brittany Michelson,, 928-420-0727

In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization with over 250,000 supporters and a 40-year history of defending animals, people, and the environment through education and campaigns, as well as hands-on rescue facilities in California, India, South Korea and the Deep South.


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