The Ethics of Elephant Captivity
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:
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?
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.