Zoo Vs. Sanctuary: An Ethical Consideration - Zoo vs. Sanctuary By The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


October 2004

In August 2004, Michael Hutchins, Ph.D., published the article "Zoo vs. Sanctuary" in AZA’s Communique, contending that AZA’s elephants are better off than elephants living at The Elephant Sanctuary or PAWS Ark 2000 Sanctuary. We respectfully disagree and believe that the facts tell a different story.

First, some context:

Elephants are physically vigorous, long-lived, intelligent mammals. Female elephants maintain the most complex and extensive social network of any mammal studied. The basic social unit is the cow/calf herd of 9 to 11 members. Female elephants never leave their family herd. In the absence of human predation and drought, wild elephants can expect to live to the age of 65 or so.

Most elephants in captivity, including AZA zoos, are held in unnaturally small groups of unrelated adults.

Most AZA elephants do not breed successfully. Those calves born in zoos face an uncertain future. Of 11 African elephant calves born in AZA zoos since 1998, only 3 were alive as of June 2003. Of 5 Asian elephants born in the 12 months preceding June 2003, 3 are already dead.

Although zoo elephants are free from drought and human predation, elephants in AZA zoos are usually dead by age 38.

If present trends continue, AZA experts predicts only 5 Asian zoo elephants will be alive in 2049.

Space Matters

A female elephant herd’s home range covers huge spaces through which it moves to forage and browse for food, minerals, and water and to seek social contact with related herds. Wild elephants walk for miles everyday yet require only about four hours of sleep a day.

AZA mandates 75 square meters of indoor space and 252 square meters of outside space for two elephants. In the wild, home ranges of female African elephant herds, for example, vary from 15 to 50 square kilometers.

Let’s do the math: in the wild, a modest elephant home range is 15 square kilometers or 15,000,000 square meters (1 square kilometer equals 1,000,000 square meters). In comparison, AZA’s acceptable barn space for two elephants is about 200,000 times smaller than the space elephants would chose for themselves. AZA’s outside yard space is about 60,000 times smaller than the smallest known elephant home range.

Not surprisingly, AZA elephants suffer from arthritis, foot root, and other orthopedic disabilities that often contribute to their early deaths.

Breeding is only relevant to zoos.

The Sanctuary is not another kind of zoo. We exist to provide a nurturing, permanent home for elephants already caught up in the web of captivity. Breeding our elephants to produce young that will, in turn, face a lifetime in captivity with no hope of return to the wild has no place in the Sanctuary.

AZA Accreditation is no guarantor of elephant well-being.

AZA’s standards do not recognize or protect the lifelong bond between elephant mothers and their female offspring, nor do they acknowledge or protect relationships that AZA’s unrelated adult female elephants have forged among themselves in their urgent quest for satisfying social affiliation.

AZA’s standards permit elephants to be chained in their barns for up to 12 hours every day, year round. The Sanctuary does not permit chaining.

AZA’s standards allow keepers to hit elephants as “training.” The Sanctuary believes that hitting an elephant is never justifiable.

Animal Management and Care

Elephants at the Sanctuary receive superior veterinary care from professionals whose experience and credentials meet or exceed AZA’s standards. The Sanctuary, like AZA zoos, has written emergency protocols addressing safety and veterinary emergencies.


Since 1990, AZA has reported that elephants in their accredited institutions have seriously injured 27 keepers, 5 of them fatally.

The Sanctuary staff has never suffered a single serious injury or fatality.

AZA standards discourage but do not prohibit elephant rides and shows where the public comes into direct contact with the animals. Sanctuary elephants never give rides, never put on shows, and are never exposed to direct contact with visitors.

Conservation and Education

The Elephant Sanctuary supports research and conservation efforts in Asia and permits noninvasive research at the Sanctuary. The Elephant Sanctuary’s educational programs for children and live online video are unparalleled.

Fund-Raising and Marketing

Like many AZA zoos, the Sanctuary is a private not-for-profit institution depending on charitable giving and grants for its programming.

About the Weather in Central Tennessee

Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that in January 2004, our coldest month, the average high in January was 48.5 degrees F. Two days were in the 70s, three were in the 60s, ten were in the 50s, and the rest were in the 30s and 40s. Our average high in February was 50.3 degrees F. We started the month at 55 degrees F. and ended it at 66 degrees F.

Wild elephants come from habitats where the temperatures range from 30 degrees to 110 degrees F.

As anyone who has actually visited Central Tennessee would know, the rest of our calendar year ranges from mild to hot.

Bottom Line

The Sanctuary provides its elephants a permanent home in a large, natural environment where they are free to build lives they choose for themselves with the support of expert veterinarians, experienced staff, and loyal Sanctuary members.

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