Raju the Elephant gave us a glimpse of elephant captivity in India, but what is it like in the US of A? Sure, shackled elephants outside of homes isn’t a common sight in the United States, but we do have zoos. Follow a day in the life of Mama, a 44-year-old captive elephant.
What it‘s Like to be an Aging Zoo Elephant
Mama currently spends her days at the Dallas Zoo’s “Elephants on the Savanna” exhibit with other aging elephants, who are affectionately dubbed the “Golden Girls” — Jenny, Gypsy, Congo and Kamba. While nowhere near an authentic African savanna, the $40 million elephant exhibit is complete with an Elephant Water-hole, fig tree and a $2 million elephant barn.
Mama may have luxuries, but she doesn’t have her health. As reported in Dallas News, Mama, the oldest captive elephant at the Dallas Zoo, has a regimen that few seniors would envy.
The matriarch starts her day, everyday, with 144 pills to help relieve her stiff joints and fluid retention issues. Mama’s keeper gives her the sign to toss her head back and gobble up the 24 PB&J sandwiches.
A bath, blood tests, a foot examination, a weight check and a massage will soon follow breakfast. Her team will watch the African elephant’s activities, her appetite, her stool and her sleep patterns.
Mama is a major source of support for the other elephants. She’s the oldest elephant in the group and the only elephant to have reared a calf — she’s got maternal instincts.
The Dallas Zoo is proud of its accomplishments. It’s rare for a captive elephant to live past 38. In the Dallas News, Martha Fischer, curator of the St. Louis Zoo and an elephant specialist, explains, “In the last three decades, animal care has improved by leaps and bounds to the point where animals are living longer.”
Elephants in Captivity Versus in the Wild
Too bad that elephants aren’t actually living longer in captivity compared to their wild counterparts. While some captive species can thrive in captivity, in the wild, a matriarch like Mama can survive into her 60s and 70s.
Last Chance for Animals lists some more ways that elephant captivity can’t match a real African savanna. Wild elephants will travel great distances. They will typically walk 40 miles a day. As News-Leader reports, in 2010, when the Dallas Zoo elephant exhibit opened, there were around four acres for the five elephants to roam.
In 2010, In Defense of Animals (IDA) gave the Dallas Zoo an honorable mention for its positive changes. While the zoo’s policies were positive, the zoo still lacked the adequate space to meet the needs of five mature elephants. Perhaps, less roaming space and exercise aren’t helping Mama’s stiff joints.
In the wild, elephants are also used to socializing with herds of 100 (often closely related) members. Mama, on the other hand, just has her four other Golden Girls.
Mama‘s a Lucky One
Mama’s fellow Golden Girl, Jenny, has lived at the zoo for over two decades. In 2008, the Dallas Zoo made headlines and earned a spot on IDA’s list of top 10 worst zoos because of lonely Jenny. Jenny’s companion had died, and the zoo planned to move her to a Mexican drive-thru safari park. The public was outraged — they demanded that Jenny be sent to live out the rest of her days in a Tennessee elephant sanctuary; the Dallas Zoo eventually tossed the idea of sending her to the safari park and opted for the new exhibit.
For many animal advocates, the ideal place for aging captive elephants is a sanctuary, not a zoo.
Many sanctuary supporters cite common zoo issues as reasons to retire elephants. Elephant activists in the Woodland Park Zoo are trying to get the zoo’s captive elephants to that same Tennessee sanctuary where earlier activists tried to see Jenny retire.
Activists highlight common issues present in zoos for captive elephants: inadequate space, unnecessary breeding programs, poor health (where little movement plays a big role) and zoochosis, or abnormal behaviors.
According to IDA, here are a few of the benefits of retiring elephants to sanctuaries versus keeping them in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) standard zoos: sanctuaries could offer elephants up to 2,000 acres of natural habitat, they’d get forever homes, and elephants could choose their own families and herds.
In the United States, the more that we learn about the emotional lives of elephants, the more elephant exhibits are closing their doors. Elephant Retirement notes how 21 zoos have already closed their elephant exhibits, and 6 more have plans to shut their exhibits.
The elephants still need a place to go after the exhibits close. As the push for retiring Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants continues, should all of our captive elephants stuck in zoos retire to sanctuaries?
Can you imagine a zoo without elephants? Is that something that you‘d want to see? Let us know in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Tobias