2020: A Bitter Year for Humans and Elephants
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM IDA In Defense of Animals
March 2021

It shouldn’t take a significant tragedy like COVID-19 to show us just how bad captive elephants have it. The science is sound: elephants can barely survive in zoos, let alone thrive. It’s time to stop pretending we can improve this broken system and instead make one final transfer: turn over all captive elephants in zoos to accredited sanctuaries and end all attempts to import them from the wild as zoos fail elephants in captivity now as they always have.

Despite the world’s sharp focus on suffering caused by confinement and disease, In Defense of Animals’ list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America for 2020 reveals that zoos continued business as usual in profiting off elephants’ lives throughout the pandemic — and concealed the price wild and captive elephants pay for zoo captivity.

African Lion Safari
African Lion Safari is a hub for elephant breeding and trafficking supplying U.S. zoos. It forces elephants to perform unnatural and demeaning circus acts and give rides to tourists. Photo: Boris Kasimov

The year 2020 was one for the history books, with lives everywhere upended or tragically cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. As normal life ceased to exist, we learned a little of what captivity feels like. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders gave us a bitter, yet temporary taste of the grinding imprisonment elephants and other animals experience in zoos their entire lives. Many elephants are separated without choice from those they once knew as a standard zoo practice. Others face complete social isolation from their own kind. All elephants in zoos face several diseases unique to captivity, some lethal. Untimely death and unnecessary suffering loom close-by, even for captive elephants in the “best” zoos. Of 11 elephants who perished in North America’s accredited zoos in 2020, two siblings died from a virus endemic to Asian elephants. Dead at one and five years, their only view of the world was through bars.

Despite the world’s sharp focus on suffering caused by confinement and disease, In Defense of Animals’ list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in North America for 2020 reveals that zoos continued business as usual in profiting off elephants’ lives throughout the pandemic — and concealed the price wild and captive elephants pay for zoo captivity.

African Lion Safari
A young elephant forced to balance on only front legs at African Lion Safari. Photo: CC Flickr

Transfer Abuse

Many of the zoos on the 10 Worst Zoos list demonstrate how zoos engage in “transfer abuse,” trafficking elephants from place to place, often multiple times. This unique cruelty is rife in zoos, even though it can cause significant trauma — both for elephants moved and those left behind. Elephants who suffer separation through transfer abuse are significantly more likely to perform abnormal “stereotypic” behaviors, a known indicator of compromised welfare. These strange repetitive movements are not seen in the wild and are a symptom of zoochosis — psychosis caused by confinement. It’s a response to the physical and psychological frustration of confined animals’ innate needs. This is cruelty of the highest order, yet most zoo visitors do not realize that these odd behaviors are a cry for help.

For years, zoos wrongly claimed that repetitive transfers of male elephants don’t impact captive elephant society, because of an outdated belief that males are “loners” in the wild. But a 2020 study revealed that male African elephants aren’t quite the loners they appeared to be. Instead, when they strike off on their own as adolescents, they remain an essential part of the social fabric of elephant society, with older males passing along their wisdom to younger males. This upends two important human notions about elephants: that males are expendable and can therefore be targeted by trophy hunters with little impact; and that zoos can transfer males with no ill effects. Elephant culture in both males and females is passed down through generations.

In light of this new data, captive elephant facilities must stop breeding and transferring elephants because of the trauma it causes individuals piled on top of the cruelty inherent in captivity. Although the scientific case against transfer abuse has grown, the findings are still a mere inconvenience for zoos and other institutions. Zoos have a vested interest in exploiting elephants as commodities by trucking them from one location and climate to another, and breeding them so calves can spend their lifetimes in captivity that will subject them to painful diseases and ailments seldom, if ever, found in the wild.

Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth Zoo in Texas is offering a Canadian theme park $2 million for two elephants and in the process would separate two mothers from their calves. Photo: Wasif Malik/Flickr

Conservation of Wild Elephants is Impossible in Zoos

Zoos respond with a deadly excuse that captive elephants in North America and elsewhere outside of their natural ecosystems are insurance in case of extinction in the wild. This justification is used by zoos to spend many millions of dollars on new captivity structures, diverted from directly benefiting wild elephants to prevent that extinction. No zoo elephant will be transferred to the wild, and studies can be done where elephants live as herds in the wild and tragically, with wild orphans when they aren’t protected because of inadequate funding.

For yet another year, the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants list exposes how zoos considered by their supporters to be among the best in North America are ignoring the science — even when it comes to the most basic elephant welfare. Slowly but surely, zoos are killing elephants. Exposing this fact is the reason behind our annual list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, now in its seventeenth year.

It shouldn’t take a significant tragedy like COVID-19 to show us just how bad captive elephants have it. The science is sound: elephants can barely survive in zoos, let alone thrive. It’s time to stop pretending we can improve this broken system and instead make one final transfer: turn over all captive elephants in zoos to accredited sanctuaries and end all attempts to import them from the wild as zoos fail elephants in captivity now as they always have.

Visit IDA's website to learn more about 2020's 10 Worst Zoos:

African Lion Safari, Hamilton, ON
Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, TX
Pittsburgh Zoo, Pittsburgh, PA
Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, NY
Monterey Zoo, Salinas, CA
Myrtle Beach Safari, Myrtle Beach, SC
Natural Bridge Zoo, Natural Bridge, VA
Memphis Zoo, Memphis, TN
Cameron Park Zoo, Waco, TX
Hogle Zoo, Salt Lake City, UT
Dishonorable Mention: Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, NY


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