Zoo Controversy by the Trunkload - Zoo Vs. Sanctuary: An Ethical Consideration
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Roy Bragg, Express-News Staff Writer
December 2004

DETROIT Wanda and Winky moved lazily across the yard, pausing occasionally to grab a mouthful of hay with their trunks before stopping at the high, reinforced metal fence surrounding their pen.

Elephant keeper Mary Wulff lifted her arm and, on cue, Winky inched closer to the fence separating her from Wulff and keeper Patti Miles.

Winky picked up her back left foot and pushed it between the bars. Miles took a large brush to the foot, scraping off dirt and dead skin. After four feet were scrubbed, it was Wanda's turn.

Weighing in at about 10 tons each, Wanda and Winky appear to be the epitome of strength, but the big gals of the Detroit Zoological Institute aren't doing too well.

Winky, 51, suffers from arthritis. Wanda, 46, on loan from the San Antonio Zoo, has endured foot problems for years. And two weeks ago, it was found that Wanda may carry a virus that could kill younger elephants.

Detroit officials said they can't improve either animal's health. The zoo in September announced it will close the elephant exhibit and ship both to a Tennessee sanctuary, where they could roam green pastures.

That ignited a public and highly charged debate among animal rights activists and the American zoo community. How should the world's smartest land mammals treat the world's largest land mammals?

Animal rights advocates claim captive elephants at zoos around the country suffer limb problems because they spend most of their time pacing the concrete floors of small enclosures. And being isolated or kept in small groups disrupts their natural social structure, causing abnormal behavior. Forcing elephants to breed exploits the animals for profit. And elephants in zoos, they argue, die early.

There are 295 elephants housed in 83 zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Animal advocates say too many elephants are doing too little for the good of the species.

"There are 40,000 Asian elephants and 500,000 African elephants in the world," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights organization. "What good can 300 elephants do? Is there any value having elephants at zoos beyond allowing people to see them in person?"

Zookeepers reject the notion that elephants suffer in their care, saying the other side is spreading misinformation to discredit zoos. But they acknowledge change is coming.

"We are at a nexus of making decisions about our future in terms of elephants in North America," said John Lehnhardt, Disney Animal Kingdom's animal operations director "We're sitting down now to plot out that future in a way that's best for elephants."

"We're through the crossroads," adds San Antonio Zoo Director Steve McCusker. "We're marching full steam ahead to do something about it."

The Winky and Wanda saga came to an abrupt conclusion last week.

After Detroit announced its plans, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Plan stepped in and ordered the animals sent to the Columbus Zoo, which is AZA-accredited and had room for two more elephants.

AZA, the zoo accreditation association, uses Species Survival Plans, subgroups consisting of experts in a particular animal, to set policy and ensure the viability of the nation's zoo stock.

But when Wanda's virus was uncovered during a routine, pre-transfer physical, the Columbus Zoo backed out of the plan since it has a younger elephant that could be threatened by it.

The SSP then retired the pair labeling them surplus since they no longer were integral to research or breeding.

San Antonio donated Wanda to Detroit, and Detroit announced it will send its elephants to a California sanctuary.

Although Detroit got what it wanted, the larger issue remains unresolved.


Domesticated elephants have been used as beasts of burden in Asia and Africa for centuries. Carthaginian Gen. Hannibal rode elephants over the Alps in 218 B.C. to invade Italy.

African and Asian elephants always have been a prized part of zoo collections. Although there are some differences in behavior between them, the two breeds share many traits.

Elephants live in a matriarchal society, with herds consisting of multigenerational families of females. Bull elephants enter the picture during breeding, but are shunned otherwise because of their hostile and unpredictable behavior.

When elephants are happy, they emit a guttural gurgle, or flap their ears, or playfully wrap their trunks together. When they're really happy, they let loose with their unmistakable trumpeting.

They also employ an inaudible "infrasound" that travels miles. Researchers think it's used like a long-distance phone system between herds and families.

"If you're close to an elephant when they do it, you can't hear it," said Harry Peachy, Columbus' head elephant keeper, "but you can feel it (rumbling) in your sternum."

Although strict rules here and abroad limit the importation of elephants, anyone can legally own them under federal law.

The federal Animal Welfare Act mandates humane treatment, said Mike Rogers of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, but it only applies to sellers and those putting the animals on exhibit. Buyers are exempt from federal rules unless they opt to sell or exhibit the animals.

The AZA through the Elephant SSP and another panel called the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group has stricter guidelines for its 78 accredited zoos.

Different zoos take different approaches to elephant-human contact.

Some zookeepers employ "free contact, " a technique that allows them to be in the same room with the elephants. It's controversial among animal rights activists because most of those zookeepers use a walking-stick sized device called an "ankus" equipped with a hooked end

Critics complain the ankus is overused, but proponents say it's employed sparingly during an elephant's early training and only as a last resort after that.

The Columbus Zoo, considered one of the nation's best and which has a sterling reputation in zoo circles, uses free contact.

Other zoos, such as San Antonio and Detroit, use "protected contact," a technique in which a fence always separates humans from the elephants and ankuses aren't used.

At the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., where Detroit first planned to send Winky and Wanda, Carol Buckley's staff employs "non-dominance free contact" or "passive control."

Staffers who have earned the elephants' trust treat them like very big pets petting, caressing and embracing the elephants without an ankus in sight.

"We've become part of the herd," she said. "We don't dominate. Zoos can't do it our way because of the circumstances their elephants are kept in."

Buckley and Scott Blais founded the 2,700-acre preserve, located among rolling hills southwest of Nashville, in 1995.

The sanctuary, closed to the public, has a dozen elephants. Some were confiscated from neglectful owners. Three came from AZA-sanctioned zoos after being declared "surplus."

Staffers bring food, water is plentiful and veterinary care is provided when necessary. Beyond that, the elephants are allowed to roam freely.

"They're not here for entertainment," Buckley said, "and they're not here to breed."

The AZA hasn't approved the facility, nor the California sanctuary where Winky and Wanda are heading, citing veterinary and financial concerns.

Buckley says the sanctuary has been successful in raising money. As for veterinarians, she says the Elephant Sanctuary doesn't need one because its elephants aren't in the unhealthy environs of a zoo.

San Antonio's McCusker says Buckley is wrong about zoos.

"It's a whole ego thing," he said. "They justify their existence by doing what they think is right for those animals, but I don't think that serves any purpose" for the species.


Most of what's known about elephant reproduction, nutrition and behavior, McCusker says, resulted from the past 30 years of zoo research.

Zoo patrons love elephants, and their admission fees help bankroll research and protection of native herds throughout Africa and Asia.

"We're doing a good job," McCusker said, "in a humane manner."

Decisions about animal swaps, such as the one involving Wanda and Winky, usually occur behind the scenes. San Antonio, for example, no longer keeps sea lions or gorillas because McCusker's staff couldn't provide the best setting for those animals. Deals were made and those animals were sent to zoos that welcomed them.

Detroit Zoo Director Ron Kagan sympathizes with animal rights advocates a position inconsistent with the animal welfare role of zoos and went public with the Winky and Wanda impasse to publicize that agenda, McCusker said.

Kagan essentially agrees.

"I'm proud to be a bunny hugger and a scientist," he said. "To love and be compassionate is good. It's about being humane. It's about being ethical. Zoos are a reflection of our values, and zoos contribute to shaping our values.

"There's a need for zoos to have an open dialogue of issues and not just be an (archive). A zoo is not a museum."

Kagan says he tried behind the scenes to negotiate with San Antonio and the AZA to get the elephants moved to a sanctuary, but was rebuffed each time.

He offered to buy the animals, though McCusker counters that it wasn't a serious offer.

When Kagan went public, it spawned an onslaught of support.

The Detroit and San Antonio zoos received boxes of letters and hundreds of e-mails. A Detroit student created a Web site dedicated to the issue. Detroit's mayor wrote San Antonio city officials asking for their assistance.

"How embarrassing is it that zoos have been in the elephant business and we haven't gotten it?" Kagan said. But "if you explain it to the public, they get it in five minutes. It illustrates our arrogance as a profession."

Animal rights advocates are wrong when they say zoo elephants fare badly, elephant keepers say.

Not all zoo elephants, for example, suffer foot problems, said Michael Fouraker, including the six at the Fort Worth Zoo, where he's the executive director.

While some elephants suffer from that malady, he said, many of those animals were mistreated before being acquired by zoos.

Nor do elephants die early in captivity, said Fouraker, who's president of the International Elephant Foundation.

That's a statistical bluff created by comparing the average age of elephant death in zoos to the oldest elephant age recorded in the wild, he said.

As for the need for space, Disney's Lehnhardt says studies about the elephants' need to roam are inconclusive.

"They go where there's food or water," he said, "or where the weather's better. If they get that in one place, they stay in one place."

A Disney-commissioned study of its 12 African elephants showed they put in 10 miles a day in their 7-acre compound without evidence of foot problems.

Nor is cold weather a problem, says Charlie Gray, who runs African Lion Safari, a 700-acre drive-through park in Camridge, Ontario. It's 75 miles farther north than Detroit.

"Our elephants have acclimated well to the weather," he said. "Our younger elephants like to play in the snow. And we've had elephants go to the ponds and break the ice to splash around in the water."

Another misconception, Fouraker said, is the public's image of life in the wild.

As habitat disappears in Africa, elephants are being captured and confined in large preserves to protect them and people living nearby. A preserve is bigger than any American zoo, but it's still a fenced world.

Despite the rancor, there's actually agreement between the disparate sides about the future.

Cynthia Moss, who's spent 30 years at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya and supports sanctuaries such as Buckley's, sees many U.S. zoos following Detroit's lead and getting out of the elephant business.

The scenario being eyed by both the IEF and AZA is a network of large, regional zoos that have made a financial commitment to keeping larger herds of elephants. Those zoos would contribute money and stock to AZA wildlife reserves set up for breeding and retirement.

"There's no need," Moss said, "for every zoo in every city to have two elephants."

Though Buckley maintains zoos have no need for elephants, Moss believes zoos still serve a role in education and fund-raising.

"This whole Detroit issue is part of the evolution," she said. "It's raising questions. It's made some people angry and it's caused some fighting, but it's raised some very important issues."

Michael Hutchins, AZA conservation director, agrees.

"Zoos can't sit idly by," he said. "They have to change. They have to change and grow and support more conservation. But we've got to be careful. Emotional concerns are important, but we have to make informed decisions."

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