Hall of Shame: Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Fresno, California
Dishonorable Mention: Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
“Elephants evolved to live in spaces 1,000 to a million times bigger than even a large zoo enclosure of 10 hectares (24.7 acres).”
— Dr. Rob Atkinson and Dr. Keith Lindsay, “Expansive, diverse habitats are vital to the welfare of elephants in captivity”
For this year's 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, In Defense of Animals is tackling a subject that may be difficult to comprehend. However, it is time to confront the perceived benefit of expanding exhibit space head-on.
For many years, zoos have touted new “state of the art” elephant exhibits, expanded to provide 3 or more times the space of their former enclosures. Zoos raise enormous amounts of money to make these expansions: $50 million for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, and $58 million for the Oregon Zoo are just two recent examples. The sad fact is, expanding elephant enclosures wastes money and wastes elephant lives. It is time to expose the zoo space sham and realize the sooner we confront this reality, the sooner we can end the suffering of captive elephants.
It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
— Carl Sagan
While added acres may seem like a lot to the casual observer, when you look deeper you see how little, if any, benefit it provides to far-roaming elephants. Elephants need miles to roam, not a few scant acres. The bodies and minds of Earth's largest land mammals have developed over centuries to walk vast distances, seeking water and foraging from scores of varied plant species.
Elephants endure many deprivations in zoos, but the lack of sufficient space is a major contributor to their suffering, as testified to in this new study co-authored by renowned wildlife biologist Dr. Keith Lindsay.
Elephants suffer enormously in zoos from not being able to live the way they were born to live. Zoo captivity even causes brain damage, as we exposed on our 2021 list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
When a zoo expands its elephant space from 1 or 2 acres to 3 or 6 acres, or even 10 like the Tulsa Zoo, it simply increases the problems that elephants face in captivity. Often zoos expand exhibit space so they can import more elephants to the zoo, usually with a plan to breed more elephants. Room added in the expansion shrinks with every new elephant. Deceitful zoos are spending vast funds under the pretense of giving elephants more space… then stuff the exhibit with breeding elephants and their babies who draw in crowds, but die at a shocking rate.
Consider what a few acres is for an elephant. Les O’Brien, a former zoo elephant keeper comments, “that's like a family living in a room the size of a bathroom for their whole lives.”
Furthermore, expanding elephant exhibits does not save any elephants in the wild. Every elephant imported to a zoo or bred in a zoo lives their entire life in captivity. To imply otherwise is to obscure the truth.
In light of this, what can zoos do to improve the lives of their elephant captives? Looking to sanctuaries accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries would be a good start. True elephant sanctuaries respect elephant autonomy, do not breed elephants or put them on public display, and provide hundreds or even thousands of acres for elephants to roam.
North American zoos with captive elephants fall significantly below GFAS standards. So the only way to truly invest in elephant wellbeing in zoos is:
In Defense of Animals encourages all zoos to follow in these progressive footsteps and end the horrific mental and physical suffering of elephants in zoos.
The road to hell can be diverted to a heavenly path to elephant freedom.