Zoos Called It a ‘Rescue.’ But Are the Elephants Really Safe?

Zoos Called It a ‘Rescue.’ But Are the Elephants Really Safe?

“For us, as hard as we tried, we realized that realistically nothing we could do was going to give them an opportunity to thrive,” Kagan explained. “And that wasn’t just about the physical environment; it was also about the social environment. Elephants don’t live in solitary or one or two dyads. They live in herds, and we couldn’t do that and we’re not sure who can. So there were just so many things that we realized were major compromises for the elephants, and that no matter how much we love elephants and want to be near elephants and see elephants, we said this is just fundamentally wrong for us to do this.”

Kagan’s stance resulted in his three-month suspension from the A.Z.A. and continuing disagreement among his zoo colleagues. His subsequent decision to send his elephants, Winky and Wanda, to the 2,300-acre Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in Northern California only worsened the discord. The A.Z.A. disapproves of sanctuaries for, among other reasons, the fact that they don’t allow further captive breeding. In 2012, in fact, the A.Z.A. revoked the Toronto Zoo’s accreditation when that facility, citing the harmful effects of captivity, sent its three African elephants to the PAWS sanctuary. (The zoo has since been reaccredited.) That very summer, meanwhile, ruling on a lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles Zoo over the treatment of its elephants, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge tacitly endorsed Kagan’s 2004 decision and those of all who’ve since followed suit.

“Captivity,” Judge John L. Segal wrote in his opinion, “is a terrible existence for any intelligent, self-aware species, which the undisputed evidence shows elephants are.” He continued: “To believe otherwise, as some high-ranking zoo employees appear to believe, is delusional.”

In the course of multiple visits over the past two years with the Swazi elephants, I encountered the best possible renditions of a daily existence — shy of a sprawling multiacre refuge like PAWS or the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which I visited some years ago — that captivity can currently offer. I met, as well, people who care deeply about elephants, everyone from zoo directors like Ryan Gulker to uniformed keepers and handlers. And while their care does not, by definition, extend as far as an objection to their charges’ confinement, it also often engenders both a willful blindness to captivity’s inescapable stresses and some rather fanciful hopes about what its continuance might one day yield. Gulker told me that he thinks that with the practices now being employed at Sedgwick, they’ll soon be rearing “multigenerational, multisex groups.” When I brought up the dismal breeding rate and the incidents of stillbirths and infanticide, he remained undeterred.

“The statistics and the data that have been used to say that elephants in zoos don’t do well,” he said, “are data that go back decades into the time frame that does not apply to what we’re doing today.”

A study published in 2005 — an author of which was Lisa Faust, the A.Z.A.’s own expert on captive-animal reproduction — was already offering a dim outlook. Faust’s analysis concluded that even with improved breeding strategies then in place, the captive elephant population still faced at best a continuing “decline of more than 2 percent annually over the next 30 years.” And while zoo officials continue to assert that elephants are now thriving in zoos, the overall numbers have proved to be even more grim than Faust predicted. From 2000 to the present, according to data from PETA, 76 elephants have died in A.Z.A.-accredited zoos, 24 of them before reaching the age of 2. In early September 2017, Warren, one of the two bull elephants among the 17 imported from Swaziland, succumbed at the age of 8 or 9 while under anesthesia for surgery on a cracked tusk. In October 2018, despite assurances by the three zoos in the 2016 elephant import that they were committed to maintaining strong bonds among their new arrivals, two of the four Swazi female elephants who ended up in Dallas — a mother, Nolwazi, and her calf, Amahle — were dispatched to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California to help that facility grow its herd. But in essence, the trend has been that for every new birth in captivity, two elephants have died. As Gregg Hudson himself acknowledged to me, “The captive zoo population just isn’t sustainable.” Nevertheless, zoos continue to invest millions of dollars in new exhibits and elaborate import schemes.

Before leaving Sedgwick that day, I stepped back inside the Zambezi enclosure’s new elephant barn and watched one of the daily training and health checkup sessions conducted there. It was a mostly silent slow-motion dance between the keepers and the kept, who, at the mere wave or tap of a bamboo wand and the promise of another pressed alfalfa cube, pliantly raised up and rested one foot at a time on their enclosure’s crossbars for inspection, or turned their massive frames to proffer each ear for cleaning and drawing blood.

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