For Scotty and Louie

The Ethics of Elephant Captivity

Scotty: Photo by Trisha Shears (Creative Commons)

JULY 5,  2010 — Last  week, a keeper at the Toledo Zoo was injured by a shove from seven-year-old Louie, a 4,000-pound elephant. In May Louisville Zoo’s much loved three-year-old elephant Scotty died from complications following an infection. The two incidents highlight the ethically troubling proposition of keeping elephants in zoos.

I have written about both these zoos. I wrote about Louie’s birth and covered the Toledo Zoo off and on for nine years as a reporter at the Toledo Blade. Last spring I wrote about some of the ethical issues involved in keeping elephants in captivity when I looked at Scotty’s future at the Louisville Zoo for Louisville Magazine. I’ve spent hours talking to keepers at these zoos and others, and I don’t for a moment question their dedication to the animals and their zeal to do the best for them.

Unfortunately, dedication and zeal don’t seem to be enough, as the two above incidents illustrate.

A couple of  notes about the Toledo accident:

Scotty: Photo by Trisha Shears (Creative Commons)

The injured keeper, elephant manager Don RedFox, went into the elephant’s enclosure alone, a violation of zoo protocol. RedFox’s injuries are not life-threatening, thank goodness, but he was reportedly in intensive care on Friday.  Louie had no history of aggression, and speculation is that RedFox, who has worked with elephants for more than three decades, surprised the youngster, prompting the run-in.

Keepers routinely enter the enclosures of elephants, a practice unheard of for other large wild zoo animals and almost all small ones. But the practice,  called free contact, is not allowed at all zoos. In fact, it’s the subject of intense debate within the zoo community because of the risks not only to the keepers, but to the animals. Those who oppose free contact say it requires the use of physical force to keep the animals in line. Keepers disagree. They tell me the only force they use is equivalent to what one might use teaching a dog to walk on a leash. I’m willing to accept that this is the case for almost every keeper. But the exceptions are deeply disturbing: In 2000, an Oregon Zoo employee was fired after an elephant was discovered with 175 gashes from a beating.  A zoo in Springfield, Mo., was fined after employees beat an elephant with bullhooks— a pole topped by a sharpened metal hook used in elephant training —  and pieces of wood. The El Paso Zoo was cited for elephant abuse in 1998 and 2006.  Video of trainers beating elephants at the Milwaukee County Zoo surfaced in the 1990s.

These are isolated incidents, supporters of free-contact point out. But it’s fair to ask if the occurrence points to an inherent problem. A probing look of underlying causes of incidents of abuse has not, to my knowledge, ever been done. Zoos pay the fines, fire the employees, and move on. What systemic changes take place — if any — following abuse revelations are seldom reported. Investigations of what created an atmosphere where such abuse is possible have not been aired publically, and perhaps never undertaken.

Of course, the records show that it is far more common for humans to be hurt by elephants. No other captive animal has a worse record — not that you’d know that from reading a Blade story this week about the attack at the Toledo Zoo. The newspaper  uncritically reported that “Such accidental injuries are rare with elephants …”

This desire to downplay injuries by elephant also showed up in 2002, when a Pittsburgh Zoo keeper was killed by an elephant. In a follow-up story the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to the “more than 30” elephant attacks on humans since 1990 as “relatively rare.”

How much of this rarity should we accept?

Punch: Photo by Trisha Shears (Creative Commons)

According to one tally of more than fifty elephant attacks since 1990,  thirty-one of those incidents took place at zoos. (Honestly, I expected more of the attacks to come from circuses. In general, incidents at circuses injure more people, but are no more common than at zoos.)

Again, the larger questions behind these attacks remain. Many of the injuries are blamed on people or noises surprising animals.  In an incident in Louisville in which a zoo visitor was gravely injured — to be fair, this was 20 years ago — the animal was said to be “horsing around.” Most attacks are reported as anomalous actions by animals who have never before exhibited aggression. That we cannot predict this behavior is more problematic than if most incidents were by repeat offenders.  We still know very little about what motivates elephant behavior. Don RedFox at Toledo is  nationally known for his elephant expertise, and yet nothing, apparently, warned him that Louie might injure him, whether by accident or on purpose.  An expert consultant Toledo hired to review the accident has viewed video and judged the elephant’s behavior “a fluke.” No surprise there. Not much help, either.

The situation in Louisville – the sad death of the young elephant  – points to a second problem among captive elephants: Significantly shorter lifespans than their wild counterparts.

When I wrote about Louisville’s baby Scotty in 2009, I said, “Scotty’s abundant health makes it difficult to believe he’s vulnerable.” I never dreamed I’d be so wrong.

A paper in the journal Science in 2008 showed zoo-born elephants don’t live as long as wild elephants, even if the statistical comparison includes deaths in the wild caused by poachers. Wild African elephants live an average of thirty-six years when poaching deaths are included in calculations of average lifespan. When poaching deaths are not part of the calculation, wild African elephants live fifty-six years. The average lifespan for African elephants in zoos is seventeen years. The zoo figure here is from European zoos. Research indicates that the performance of North American zoos is even worse. A 2004 paper published in the journal of the American Zoo Association showed that captive elephants in European zoos lived about six years longer than elephants in North American zoos. The 2004 paper came up with longer life expectancies for elephants in Europe by excluding elephants that died in infancy from its calculation. The Science paper counted elephants of all ages.

The authors of the Science paper concluded that, in general, zoo elephants had mortality risks almost three times higher than wild elephants – and people are shooting at wild elephants.

Isn’t it time to dispassionately review whether elephants belong in zoos? Those who support captivity argue that elephants are marvelous ambassadors for the wild. The awe they inspire brings the public closer to the natural world.  Zoos are the only ways most of us will see an elephant or a polar bear or a gorilla. And I certainly know people whose love of wildlife was fostered by their zoo experiences. But is this enough?

If we could build a scale that could weigh the benefits we get from keeping elephants captive against the price the animals pay, would there be sufficient evidence in favor of continuing captivity? Further, what evidence do we have – solid, empirical, repeatable evidence – of these benefits? Elephant populations in Africa now are culled – which is a nice way of saying elephants are shot and killed – in order to control population. Does this change our justification for elephant captivity?

Do people go home from zoos and act in more environmentally responsible ways? Do they reduce their carbon footprint? Do they give money to wildlife organizations? Do they behave ethically in their relationships with nature? If we do not have solid answers to these questions, where does this leave our justifications?

Unfortunately we can answer many questions about the price elephants pay: highly social creatures evolved to live in complex groups and travel miles in the course of a year instead live in small enclosures often with no more than one or two companions and only the exercise and stimulation their human caretakers are able to arrange in an otherwise impoverished environment. Reproduction rates are very low. Infant survival is discouraging. Lifespans are shortened.

This is a painful consideration for anyone who treasures seeing elephants. I prize the time I’ve witnessed these animals. I was honored to see Louie when he was very, very small, and I was utterly charmed in my up-close encounter with Scotty. I hate to think of denying that opportunity to others. But in honor of Louie and Scotty, we need to reconsider our strategy. If we cannot do better — and in not some distant day in the future, but immediately — it’s time to fund shelters in appropriate places and let these animals live the way they evolved to live.


    • Thanks Peta, I see from your website that you’re an animal trainer. It’s interesting to hear the responses of people who work with animals for a living. Of course, I always like it when people agree with me!
      Thanks again,

  1. Thanks, Jenni, for your thoughtful report cum commentary on elephants in captivity. A few years ago I was privileged to observe a family of around 12 wild elephants in Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. It took a couple of hours to find them, but it was worth it. “Ellies,” as the park rangers call them, rule this 160,000-acre spread the way bison dominate Yellowstone Park. It was wonderful to see them relating to each other and doing it with barely a glance at the curious humans watching them from an open-sided vehicle. At that time there were more than 400 animals within the park’s boundaries (which the elephant population’s protected and steady growth from 11 animals in 1931 had helped to expand).
    These ellies were evidence that careful management, enough land, help from surrounding villages and a dedicated, informed vision can bring even animals on the brink of extinction back into natural balance with people and the environment.
    Perhaps the long-term answers to the problems of modern zoos can be found in such examples as the South African National Park system. But for the short term I suspect that just as American zoos have grudgingly moved from cages to more spacious enclosures it will be a long time before the underlying inertia as well as physical obstacles will be overcome.

  2. Excellent article – I am curious about what the possible advantages are to keeping elephants in captivity putting aside the “abassadors for the wild” tag. I was not aware that African herds were culled, so my original theory that captives are for species preservation is faulty.

    • Thanks Mick. The whole idea that zoos are big arks that will someday restore wild species deserves examination. From what I’ve seen, zoos are not working in this direction for their big, popular, bring-in-the-visitors animals, and not just elephants. The species that have been sometimes successfully returned to the wild are most often reptiles and amphibians — animals with lots of instinctive behavior
      Mammals are a tougher challenge. When raised in captivity, they learn few of the behaviors necessary to survive in the wild. In fact, it could be possible that breeding animals for generations in captivity actually selects traits that help them survive in captivity. (This is, however, an unproven idea). The oryx, a species of antelope, is one of the few examples of mammals returned successfully to the wild. The black-footed ferret is the other mammal returns-to-the-wild success story the Association of Zoos and Aquariums talks about. Other reintroductions labeled successful include condors, karner blue butterflies, and the Wyoming toad.

      It’s worth noting that a private zoo in Great Britain created by the late John Aspinall has returned some zoo gorillas to the wild (one of which I met while in Gabon). Actually, the animals weren’t returned straight to the wild, but to a gorilla orphanage, where they gradually learned to live like a wild-born animal. This suggests the idea of returning to the wild isn’t impossible. But I no of no other European, or for that matter, U.S. zoos with anything resembling the Aspinall effort.

      Another potential problem with the zoo-as-ark idea is that zoo animals are exposed to pathogens — bacteria, viruses, fungi — not seen in the wild. If they’re returned to the wild, will they carry these germs into populations unable to fight them? The chytrid fungus that’s taken a huge toll on amphibians all over the globe may be an example of a pathogen that spread through a captive species. One theory is it spread worldwide by African toads naturally immune to chytrid fungus. The toads were shipped all over the world because they were used in pregnancy tests. Then they escaped. It’s not clear to me that amphibian populations raised in zoos to “save” a species can be safely reintroduced. Then again, if chytrid is already everywhere, it may be a moot point.

      The other argument zoo folks mention to justify captivity is education, which to me is a version of the “ambassadors” argument. There may be other arguments I am forgetting. Maybe someone else will chime in.

      I’m not opposed to zoos, but I am troubled by the self-preservation that takes over when a zoo discusses the ethics of captivity. When it comes to elephants, I think it’s time for zoos to stop simply defending a long-held position and really examine what they’re doing.

  3. I think your last 2 paragraphs sum it up very well.
    As a child, we went to the zoo nearly every weekend, there was a human fetus in a jar in the museum and diseased organs in formaldehyde. I remember a hushed quiet as we looked at all these things
    We could hold monkeys in the petting zoo and were warned that they might bite. The elephant and lion enclosures were small and stinky… the primates were likely to spit or pee on you.
    As a kid, I loved to just search for the groundhog, watch the ducks and imagine how scary it would be to feed that lion.
    I loved seeing our zoo grow (sad when they closed the tunnel) but I do have concerns about any abuses and the quality of life of these animals.
    Most people don’t connect the survival animals and their habitat and will rape the forests and the land. Would anyone be sad if mosquitos disappeared? Only the birds and other insects that depend on them for food.
    Greed and ignorance.
    I think balance is important and culling a herd without any natural predators is necessary.

    I grew up with hunters…I can cook any kind of local wild game except muskrat (yuk).
    I’ve been watching Nat Geo and Discovery and learning just how close we are to losing so much of our wildlife. People shouldn’t be complacent just because there are zoos to see them.
    But they are.
    This is simplifying a very complex subject but it fascinates me.
    My kids and grandkids will live in a very different world.

  4. For a subject that elicits such passion on both sides, I commend you for your call to take a dispassionate look at the issue of elephants in captivity. I’m tired of hearing the same entrenched rhetoric, whether it is from In Defense of Animals or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. And thank you for pointing out the uncritical reporting by the news media that too often accompanies events in zoos. Issues surrounding wildlife conservation aren’t always easy, nor are they going to go away anytime soon. We need more thoughtful discussions like this.

    Here’s hoping for Don’s full and quick recovery!

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