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Update: Oregon Zoo Measures Passes After Zoos’ Accrediting Body President Makes Alarmingly False Claims About Captive Elephants

Update: Oregon Zoo Measures Passes After Zoos’ Accrediting Body President Makes Alarmingly False Claims About Captive Elephants

We are very disappointed that, despite an apparent 5 percent drop in public support since 2008, Oregon appears to have narrowly voted in favor of a $380 million Oregon Zoo bond. The vote follows alarming false statements about captive elephants presented by Dan Ashe, President of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

In a letter to the editor published by The Oregonian on May 19, Ashe wrote, “Elephants living in well-designed zoo habitats, under good professional care, move, on average, about the same amount as their wild counterparts. The argument that they need large expanses is a complete fabrication.” 

Ashe’s statement contradicts scientific research by renowned wildlife biologists and elephant experts worldwide.

“Every qualified researcher on the planet agrees: no zoo environment is large enough or rich enough for the complex needs of elephants,” says Les O’Brien, former elephant keeper and renowned elephant consultant at Palladium Elephant Consulting.

“Life in captivity for males is unavoidably one long process of thwarting highly motivated behaviors,” state Dr. Rob Atkinson & Dr. Keith Lindsay in their report, Expansive, Diverse Habitats Are Vital for the Welfare of Elephants in Captivity.

Ashe, and the AZA, which sets standards for animal care for its over 200 member zoos in 46 states and 12 countries, continue to ignore the growing body of research exposing how damaging captivity is to elephants, including this scientific study that reveals how much space elephants need to be healthy mentally and physically. 

No zoo can come even close to fulfilling the needs of far-roaming elephants, or for that matter, polar bears, giraffes, tigers, orcas, and myriad other large exotic animals. Zoo exhibits are a few acres at most, while the minimal range for an elephant in the wild is 2,470 acres — the largest zoo enclosure is less than 1 percent of the size of their natural range.


Oregon Zoo, which has been featured a record-breaking 13 times on In Defense of Animals’ respected annual list of 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, has a terrible history of animal care failings. Even after taxpayers footed the bill for a $57 million elephant exhibit in 2008, four elephants died, five contracted Tuberculosis, another suffered a miscarriage and the incidences of aggressive bullying increased.

Even in zoos where animal care is adequate, a few acres do not allow wild animals to express their natural behaviors. The evidence of maladjustment to their sterile, artificial, and puny space is clear. Elephants bob and sway, polar bears pace, and tigers wear out the path along the perimeter of their tiny enclosure. They have nowhere to go and little to do.

A study by Bob Jacobs, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Colorado College, reveals how the lack of stimulation and cramped space leads to brain damage.

“Zoo captivity damages elephant brains. There’s a vast gap between the rich environment nature provides for elephants’ thoughtful brains versus zoo captivity, which is impoverished and robs elephants of their social, mental, and neural needs. Decades of neuroscience research shows that an impoverished brain is a damaged brain. Whether it is the 10 Worst Zoos or the ten best, all zoos are detrimental to elephants’ brains and cause physical and mental suffering,” said Jacobs.

It’s time for Ashe and the AZA to examine the science, admit the suffering caused by their refusal to face reality and tell the public the truth. As long as the AZA and zoos continue to pretend that they can provide even a modicum of a good life to large, exotic wild animals, the animals will continue their miserable lives until they die. Along the way, they endure painful zoo-related diseases including arthritis, foot disease, Tuberculosis, and fatal elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHV).

We call on the Oregon Zoo and all zoos to retire their aging and ill animals to reputable sanctuaries and halt the breeding which only leads to more animals confined for life. Many zoos have already phased out their outdated, archaic elephant exhibits, and started to practice real conservation by extending programs that rehabilitate and restore local wildlife.

More and more of the public is becoming aware of how their entrance fee pays not for education or conservation, but for decades of anguish inflicted on innocent animals.

Public support for Oregon Zoo appears to be dropping. According to election night results, support has fallen from 60 percent in the 2008 bond vote down to 55 percent.

When do we as a society call for an end to treating elephants and all animals like mere objects to be bred, confined, and exploited for entertainment and profit? We urge all who care about animals to declare that now is that time.

To learn more about why it is wrong to keep elephants in zoos, check out our 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants lists and visit our Elephants campaign page for the latest news and ways you can get involved. Donations to support our work are always needed and appreciated.

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