Detroit Free Press
The Detroit Zoo is the first to make a purely voluntary decision of this nature...This is precedent-setting and i will reverberate throughout the zoo community and, by extension, be an indictment of what goes on in circuses where elephants are chained 22 hours a day.
After spending a combined 22 years in captivity at the Detroit Zoo, Winky and Wanda will live out their days in freedom.
The female Asian elephants will be sent to one of two U.S. refuges this summer or early fall. The Detroit Zoo will become the nation's first major animal facility to give away its elephants solely on ethical grounds, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
"People's traditional expectation of zoos is that they see lions and tigers and elephants," zoo director Ron Kagan told the Detroit Free Press for a story published Thursday. "But it's also their expectation that an animal has a good life."
The Detroit Zoo is widely recognized for its superior animal care. But Kagan said life in captivity nevertheless has caused physical and psychological problems for Winky, 51, and Wanda, who is in her mid-40s.
In the wild, female Asian elephants typically roam 30 miles a day. They form solid social bonds with members of their herds and strongly desire physical and intellectual stimulation.
But Winky and Wanda have lived through bitter Michigan winters for 14 years and eight years, respectively. They also have experienced boredom and stress while living inside their one-acre enclosure -- 16 times what the American Zoo and Aquarium Association requires of its members.
Wanda takes anti-inflammatory medication for chronic arthritis in her front legs. Winky has foot problems that might be related to sleeping unnaturally in a standing position; elephants sleep on soft surfaces in the wild.
"Now we understand how much more is needed to be able to meet all the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, especially in a cold climate," Kagan wrote in memorandum explaining the decision.
The memo said it would cost $30 million to $50 million and require up to 20 acres of land to provide an adequate environment for the elephants. The price was so high it was never considered.
Five U.S. zoos have closed elephant exhibits in recent years amid public pressure following animal deaths or alleged mistreatment. A small animal sanctuary in Georgia surrendered its elephants earlier this year, partly because of space and cost concerns.
But the Detroit Zoo "is the first to make a purely voluntary decision of this nature," said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States.
"This is precedent-setting," Pacelle said. "It will reverberate throughout the zoo community and, by extension, be an indictment of what goes on in circuses where elephants are chained 22 hours a day."
Wanda and Winky might go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, joining 11 elephants that roam 522 acres. The sanctuary plans to expand to 2,700 acres of fenced land by year's end. Or they might go to the Performing Animal Welfare Society preserve in California.
Kagan said he believes the zoo adequately addresses the needs of its other animals, although future research might prove otherwise.
Elephants "are the only animals at the zoo for which there is a great disparity between what they need and what we can provide," he said. "In the future, there may very well be more species that we'll look back and say, "We just didn't understand."