Media Release: Oklahoma and Texas Zoos Shamed as Worst Zoos for Elephants

Media Release: Oklahoma and Texas Zoos Shamed as Worst Zoos for Elephants

MEDIA RELEASE: Oklahoma and Texas Zoos Shamed as Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America


CONTACT: Toni Frohoff, Ph.D.,, 805-836-0496

Oklahoma City, OK, and Forth Worth, TX (Jan 10, 2016) – In Defense of Animals has released its respected annual list of the Ten Worst Zoos For Elephants for 2016, exposing the shocking hidden suffering of elephants in zoos, and shaming two South Central states zoos. Oklahoma City Zoo was named the #1 worst zoo for elephants in North America, while Fort Worth Zoo placed tenth.

“Elephants are suffering horrendously in South Central states zoos”, said In Defense of Animals President, Dr. Marilyn Kroplick. “The ongoing cruelties, abuses, deaths, and serious injuries to elephants and humans at Oklahoma City Zoo and Fort Worth are intolerable. Oklahoma City Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo are exploiting elephants, violating their rights, stripping them of their dignity, and submitting them to disgusting abuses in their prisons. We call on the zoos to heed science and compassion, by shutting down these archaic and barbaric zoo exhibits and retiring the elephants to a sanctuary where they can live in peace.”

Oklahoma City Zoo

Tragic captive elephant Chai was found dead outside the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant exhibit on a very cold January morning in 2016, at just 37 years old. She had lost 1,000 pounds since she was shipped in from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Gut-wrenching footage reveals Chai in a severely emaciated and weak state, being hoisted on a crane after she was unable to stand up. After her death, Chai was found to have been suffering from a bacterial infection and untreated pus-filled abscesses, marking a gross failing of the zoo to provide basic animal care.

Chai’s only friend Bamboo survives her, and has since had two inches of her tail bitten off by another frustrated elephant in their prison-like pen. Bamboo has been kept in either in solitary confinement with the aggressive female, or in the occasional company of a young male; none of these circumstances constitute even reasonable social companionship. Yet Oklahoma Zoo callously describes this sad elephant inmate as doing “great”.

Chai and Bamboo are not the only victims of Oklahoma Zoo’s mismanagement. Baby elephant Malee died in late 2015 at the age of just four. She was likely killed by the same herpes virus the zoo knew Chai and Bamboo had been exposed to.

All these tragedies could have been avoided by sending Chai and Bamboo to a sanctuary home that offered to accept the pair when Woodland Park Zoo shut down its elephant exhibit in 2014.

Fort Worth Zoo

The high-profile death and injuries of trainers at SeaWorld from traumatized captive orcas, as highlighted in the film Blackfish, resulted in what is slowly becoming a sea change of legislation and professional standards for orca captivity. In response to the death of an elephant keeper and staff injuries at various facilities, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has created new guidelines for zoos that limit direct contact between humans and elephants.

Many experts - and the AZA - have determined that further separation than previously required from captive elephants (as with captive orcas) make conditions safer for humans. Yet the Forth Worth Zoo continued its dangerous policy of “free contact” with the seven Asian elephants held captive there – putting traumatized elephants and bullhook-wielding humans in the same confined space, risking both elephant and human safety as well as elephant wellbeing.

The Zoo’s latest demonstration of its irresponsible policy came in March in 2016, when NBC 5/NBCDFW conducted an investigation into an elephant attack on a trainer back in September 2015. The Zoo reported the incident as “minor,” yet ambulance records describe “serious” injuries, including a puncture wound to a Fort Worth Zoo handler.

Not only did the zoo egregiously downplay the severity of the injury and fail to report it in a lawful manner, but it also did everything in its power to stifle the story to prevent the public finding out about the disaster. In a demonstration of downright irresponsibility, the AZA also conspired with Fort Worth Zoo in the attempted cover-up by pressuring the news agency to delay airing the report, even though its member zoo was clearly in the wrong.

When it was revealed that Fort Worth failed its legal requirement to report the incident to the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), OSHA issued a citation and a fine for safety violations, including one deemed serious because “… the employer did not protect the employees from the hazards of being struck-by, caught-in-between and impalement while working with elephants.”

This incident underscores the many issues inherent with keeping elephants in captivity. Elephants, like orcas, are wild animals and should not be treated like domesticated individuals, no matter how well trained. Doing so unnecessarily jeopardizes human and elephant safety. The wellbeing of the elephants at Fort Worth Zoo comes last, with the safety of humans who willingly go to these facilities considered far more important than the wellbeing of elephants and other animals who are forced to live in captivity against their wills. At the Fort Worth Zoo, the safety and wellbeing of both the elephants and its employees leave a lot to be desired.

AZA Accreditation
Shockingly, Oklahoma City Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo are among over half of all the captive facilities shamed on the Ten Worst Zoos List that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, showing how little AZA certification stands for. In 2016, the Association’s own study found social aspects of elephant lives to be of paramount importance to their wellbeing, yet 20% of AZA accredited zoos with elephant exhibits have only two elephants. It is unconscionable that Oklahoma City Zoo has gone a step further, by keeping a member of this highly social species isolated with an aggressive female.

“Zoos are consumers, not conservers, of elephants”, said In Defense of Animals Elephant Scientist, Toni Frohoff, Ph.D. “Captive elephants are dying faster than they can reproduce, leading zoos to steal young elephants from the wild, which destroys the elephant societies zoos claim to be conserving. Behind the scenes, zoos in the US and Canada are condemning Earth’s largest land mammals to lifetimes of deprivation, disease, despair, and early death. It is time to end our shameful exploitation of elephants in American zoos.”

Zoos all over the US and one zoo in Canada appear on the 10 Worst Zoos List. The list reveals captivity-related deaths, abuse with weapons, grossly inadequate conditions, families ripped apart, elephants torn from Africa and shipped to US zoos, elephants forced to wash cars, and even elephants found playing with a car battery.

1. Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma
2. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia
3. Honolulu Zoo, Hawaii
4. Edmonton Valley Zoo, Alberta, Canada
5. Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
6. Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York
7. Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon
8. Pittsburgh Zoo, Pennsylvania
9. Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
10. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas

Buttonwood Park Zoo, New Bedford, Massachusetts

Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

For more information, please visit

### ENDS ###

In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization with over 250,000 supporters and a 30-year history of fighting for animals, people and the environment through education, campaigns and hands on rescue facilities in India, Africa, and rural Mississippi.

IN DEFENSE OF ANIMALS • 3010 KERNER BLVD. • SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901 • 415-448-0048

LVD. • SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901 • 415-448-0048

2016 Top Ten Worst Zoos