Shut Down Elephant-Borne Disease

Shut Down Elephant-Borne Disease

This alert is no longer active, but here for reference. Animals still need your help.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause global havoc, the public is growing increasingly aware of the potential health threats caused by animal exploitation. Unfortunately, zoos are potential hotspots for diseases. Numerous cases of deadly infections have proliferated in zoos over the years, as diseases are passed from elephants to humans. This risk is unacceptable, and we must urge the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to phase out elephant captivity for good.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a zoonotic disease, meaning it was transmitted from a non-human animal to humans. Tuberculosis (TB) is also an animal-borne zoonotic disease which is commonly found in captive elephants. According to the World Health Organization, TB is one of the top 10 causes of human death worldwide and is responsible for killing millions of people every year.

TB can be even more infectious than the COVID-19. Yet zoos have resisted rules to contain the disease.

Many people who work directly with elephants at U.S. zoos and circuses have caught the disease over the last several decades. This risk is generally higher among those who work closely with elephants, though it is thought that TB can spread from elephants to humans through the air, risking possible transmission of the disease to zoo guests.

In 2019, eight staff members at Point Defiance Zoo in Washington tested positive for latent TB that was transmitted by elephants. At the Oregon Zoo, which has been included on our 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list for 10 separate years, seven staff became infected in 2016 following a TB outbreak among three bull elephants. Elephants continued to develop infections into 2019. The Bronx Zoo and St. Louis Zoo both had TB-positive elephants in recent years. All of these facilities are accredited by the AZA, and this list is far from exhaustive.

Individuals who are immunocompromised are more vulnerable to contracting diseases and have a more difficult time fighting them off once they become ill. The tight confines of captivity promote unhygienic conditions, are entirely unnatural, and cause a range of well-documented physical and psychological ailments in elephants.

At the Pittsburgh Zoo, we documented elephants stepping in their own urine and throwing feces. Unsanitary conditions such as these can lead to chronic illnesses, shortened lifespans, and disease proliferation. TB has been a scourge on captive elephant populations in the U.S. for decades, indicating that zoos are simply incapable of providing adequate living conditions to prevent the spread of this disease, despite following the standards laid out by the AZA. In the past, zoos actively resisted measures to limit the spread of TB in elephants.


While zoos hold animals in highly controlled confinement to allow for easy public viewing, accredited sanctuaries are designed to put the needs of elephants first. Often with thousands of acres for elephants to roam, these places are not intended for close viewing or contact with the public and implement strict protected contact procedures to minimize keeper contact. Their ample space also allows for more effective quarantining of sick elephants. Accredited sanctuaries are not only more suitable for elephants needs; they drastically reduce the risk of zoonotic TB transmission.

The AZA is well aware of the zoonotic risks posed by TB and captive elephant populations. In a post-COVID world, much will change - including the public's tolerance for these types of disease transmission. It is high time that the AZA implement a phase-out plan for captive elephants in the United States and around the world.

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This alert is no longer active, but here for reference. Animals still need your help.

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