Too Big, Too Smart: Are Elephants and Zoos a Bad Fit?

Elephants are intensely social, very intelligent creatures. Can they thrive in zoos?

November 6, 2018

9:21 am

Of all the animals in all the zoos across North America, perhaps the most ironically named is the Bronx Zoo’s elephant, Happy.

Happy, an Asian elephant who was born in 1971 — likely in Thailand — has lived in the Bronx for more than 40 years. But New York City, elephant watchdogs say, does not have a climate even close to appropriate for Asian elephants. Further, experts say, the confined space in which Happy lives is sub-optimal, and her lack of companionship does not meet the zoo industry's own guidelines for professional standards. The New York Times published a 2015 profile of Happy, in which it dubbed her “The Bronx Zoo’s Loneliest Elephant.”

These are just a few of the reasons why the civil-rights organization the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a legal motion in New York State last month seeking to release Happy from the zoo and send her instead to an elephant sanctuary in the U.S.

"The Bronx Zoo has constricted Happy's life almost beyond imagining so that human beings can glimpse her from a passing monorail in the middle of a city and climate that are alien to all she evolved to be and do," says Lauren Choplin of the NhRP, which is also a Moving Giants “Elephant Champion.” "We have nothing to lose — except for an outmoded way of thinking about elephants — by recognizing Happy’s fundamental right to bodily liberty and freeing her to a sanctuary, and Happy has everything to gain."

Happy the elephant, in her Bronx Zoo enclosure. (Credit: Rosana Delgado)

Happy The Celebrity Elephant

The NhRP takes a unique, legal approach to their efforts. Its website notes that its mission statement is “To change the common law status of great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘legal persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity.”

Their legal filing charges that the zoo’s “imprisonment of Happy deprives her of her ability to exercise her autonomy in meaningful ways, including the freedom to choose where to go, what to do, and with whom to be.”

[Moving Giants reached out to the Bronx Zoo for comment, but did not hear back.]

Happy is actually a minor celebrity on the science circuit — she was the first elephant to pass the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test, a test in which, about a decade ago, a mirror was installed in the pen of the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo to see whether the inhabitants would recognize themselves as individuals in the mirror. Of the then-three resident elephants, only Happy passed the test.

Happy was one of seven elephant calves — possibly all from the same herd — who were sold (for a mere $800) in the 1970s to the now-defunct Lion Country Safari in southern California. Lion Country named the young elephants after the dwarves from the Disney classic "Snow White,” and in 1977, Happy and Grumpy ended up in the Bronx Zoo. In 2002, Happy and Grumpy were moved into an enclosure with two other elephants, who charged Grumpy. The surprised Grumpy fell and was injured, never recovered from the injuries, and had to be put down. Though the zoo still has three elephants, Happy has been kept (for her own protection) alone ever since.

While Happy is essentially alone in her existence, she is hardly alone as the only elephant in what critics call untenable and inhumane scenarios in North American zoos. Sadly, Happy is one of approximately 400 elephants across North America in zoos, circuses and sanctuaries, and few of those zoos, advocates say, are appropriate for animals of that size, intelligence, social cohesion, and climate.

“Elephants suffer and they grieve when they are separated from their families, just like humans would. It is incredibly traumatic for these animals to be removed from their families and be put into a new environment.”

Rachel Mathews, Peta Foundation

Square Feet, Not Square Miles

In the wild, elephants are a migratory species, one that roams vast habitats. “But zoos,” notes Rachel Mathews, Deputy Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at the Peta Foundation, “zoos are simply not able to offer elephants the kinds of conditions that elephants need to thrive — or to lead long healthy lives. In captivity they are forced to live in habitats that are measured in square feet — not in square miles. Elephants normally would have a habitat the size of Chicago, but now have half an acre. They crave living in close-knit family groups. But in zoos they are moved around like chess pieces and they do not have the option of avoiding interactions with humans.”

Elephants naturally have lives that are very playful and interactive — not so in zoos, worry animal-rights advocates. “Wild elephants spend their time foraging, socializing, swimming and playing,” says Mathews. “But in captivity, they have little control over their lives. Their lives are controlled by keepers, and keepers cannot really offer much to replicate the experience in the wild.”

“Elephants are incredibly intelligent, self-aware animals,” adds Mathews. “They suffer and they grieve when they are separated from their families, just like humans would. It is incredibly traumatic for these animals to be removed from their families and be put into a new environment.”

Made up of attorneys, wildlife veterinarians, and captive-wildlife specialists, the Peta Foundation (a separate arm of Peta, which is a Moving Giants “Elephant Champion”), utilizes legal, regulatory, and policy means to curtail wildlife animals used in entertainment. Herself a lawyer, Mathews’ personal speciality is elephants and circuses.

“Elephants have a number of health problems related to being in zoos,” notes Mathews. “Starting with the physical and mental problems they experience in zoos: Their enclosures are small and barren — the animals become bored and stressed, They start to develop abnormal behaviors, such as rocking and swaying, and these behaviors are never seen in the wild. And captive elephants also suffer high rates of painful and chronic diseases, mainly impacting their nails and their joints and feet — nail cracks, abscesses, arthritis. Foot and joint problems are the leading reason that captive elephants are euthanized. Elephants that have these painful conditions will often go down in their exhibits and be unable to get up.”

Baby elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo. (Credit: Andrew Rush AP)

Winter Is Coming

And as we approach winter, it is a reminder that elephants are not well-suited for most North American Januarys and Februaries. “Weather is absolutely a factor,” notes Mathews. “Elephants evolved to live in warm climates. Asian elephants are subtropical. In captivity in the northeast, that means elephants spend a lot of time indoors, on concrete floors, which compound their foot and nail problems.”

Consider Ruth the elephant, who lives in captivity in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at the Buttonwood Zoo. In 2014, during one of the “coldest nights of the year,” Ruth’s keepers forgot to lock her heated barn and she escaped, only to get stuck in the snow. The experience left her with frostbite on her ears, and earned Buttonwood the “fourth worst zoo” ranking on the In Defense of Animals' (IDA) annual worst zoos list. (IDA is also a Moving Giants “Elephant Champion.”) [Moving Giants reached out to the Buttonwood Zoo for comment, but did not hear back.]

“We are now living with the legacy of some of the worst captivity situations in cold-weather climates in the U.S. and Canada,” says Will Anderson, a consultant for IDA’s elephant campaign. “What that means is that, during winters, elephants spend a large portion of their time standing around in cramped elephant barns. Elephants can spend limited times outside in cold weather and snow, but it is a terrible thing for elephants to be standing around in barns for months at a time.”

“Then there’s the coldest elephant," adds Anderson of the most northerly based elephant in our hemisphere. "Lucy in Edmonton. One of the most tragic, sad situations."

[Note: When reached for comment, the Edmonton Valley Zoo responded with a written statement, which follows, having been edited for brevity:

"We take great exception to the continued misinformation about the care Lucy receives in Edmonton. She receives excellent care at the Edmonton Valley Zoo. She has been cared for by responsible and dedicated zoo staff for more than 40 years, and the zoo is committed to providing Lucy with the best care she would receive anywhere.

Lucy arrived at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in 1977 as a two-year-old orphan. Now 43, she is a content elephant with some manageable health issues. Most notably, she has a respiratory problem that makes it difficult for her to breathe when she is in a stressful situation. Several independent elephant veterinarians have agreed that moving Lucy would very likely kill her.

We are in the business of caring for animals and putting their best interests ahead of all else. The decisions we’re making with regards to Lucy are based on scientific knowledge, expert advice, and the intimate knowledge the zoo staff has of her condition."]

“The whole idea of elephants in North America, oftentimes being kept in very cold climates, is simply a nonstarter,” counters Anderson. “And it does a disservice to the public understanding of what elephants deserve from humanity, which is a safe life in Asia and Africa. The whole concept of elephants in captivity is flawed. The zoo industry — everything from roadside zoos to the most highly esteemed zoos — want people to believe that captivity of elephants is beneficial to the species. Zoos are spending of hundreds of millions of dollars for new elephant exhibits, when that money should be going to Asian and African countries to protect elephants in the wild.”

"But Pittsburgh," specifies Anderson, "has a special place in my heart — for heartache. They [the Pittsburgh Zoo] opposed the bull-hook ban."

[When reached by Moving Giants, the Pittsburgh Zoo declined to comment.]

“The Pittsburgh Zoo’s abuse of elephants landed them on our 2010 and 2016 ‘Ten Worst Zoos’ lists for using dogs to terrify elephants into submission and using bull-hooks to dominate the elephants instead of implementing the modern practice of protected contact, where barriers remain between elephants and people for everyone’s safety.”

In an age where even animal crackers are getting "woke," perhaps it is time to rethink keeping elephants in zoos.

(Opening image of elephant, at Pittsburgh Zoo, credited to In Defense of Animals.)

"During winters, elephants spend a large portion of their time standing around in cramped elephant barns."

Will Anderson, In Defense of Animals

Lucy the elephant in the Edmonton Valley Zoo in winter snow. (Credit: Lucy's Edmonton Advocates Project)