Free At Last But Far To Go: India Orders All Elephants Freed from Zoos & Circuses

India’s Central Zoo Authority announced this week that all 140 elephants in the nation’s zoos and circuses will be removed to sanctuaries and refuges, where they will be more free to live in the wild. Unfortunately, an additional 3,500 captive elephants, mostly in temples and working at logging camps, are unaffected by the measure. 

The Indian ban is an excellent first step on a national scale, and zoos all over the world have been closing down their elephant “exhibits,” including London, Chicago and San Francisco, albeit sometimes after tragic deaths and years of suffering.

While it is wonderful that these beautiful creatures are moving to a better life, it begs the question…why stop at elephants?  Zoos came into being to amuse and distract humans, but also to study animals and to give us the opportunity to connect back to nature.  But the denaturing atmosphere of many zoos means that the animals do not behave “naturally” as they would in the wild.  Even more disturbing are circuses, where sentient creatures are enslaved to perform for people’s pleasure….not much different than the gladiators of ancient Rome. Studies show that elephants in captivity live shorter lives and contract more diseases than their peers in the wild. And of course wild elephants face multiple challenges from human encroachment as well.

The fundamental question is about the rights of all living creatures and how distanced humans have become from seeing themselves as part of the natural world.  If we recognized and acted as if we are part of, not apart from,  the ecosystem, we might behave differently, and conditions for all living things would improve. Are we stewards of the earth, or plunderers of it?  What would an elephant say to that question?

I have emailed the Indian Central Zoo Authority at to thank them for their action…would you do the same?

Photo: Sasimoto via istockphoto


Beverley A.
Beverley A.6 years ago

Providing zoos have enough room, such as at Dubbo Zoo and the new enclosures at Taronga Zoo in NSW, Australia, wildlife, including elephants, can have a reasonable life. The programs at these zoos aim to help conserve endangered species. Australian zoos are not so much geared towards "human entertainment" any more. Vast changes have been made at Taronga Zoo in Sydney over the last 20 years. The horrible old tiny enclosures where animals lived stressful, confined existences are no more. Hopefully, zoos in other countries will follow suit.

I am completely against animals in circuses and will never attend one that uses animals for "entertainment".

Dr Beverley Alderton BVSc (Hons)

pam w.
pam w.6 years ago

Obviously, you don't know much about successful zoo captive breeding programs. I suggest you do some research on that. I also suggest you get involved with your nearest accredited zoo and learn about their goals..."profit" isn't anywhere near the top of the list.

Goals of accredited zoos....1. Education 2. Conservation (this means breeding programs--in zoos and in the field) 3. Behavioral studies 4. Recreation

Notice I've never defended circuses? Treatment of animals in Russian traveling circuses in NO WAY justifies releasing endangered animals into some ill-defined "wild."

pam w.
pam w.6 years ago

There have been several discussions about "sanctuaries" in this thread...but sanctuaries do not breed animals. The only hope for continuation of endangered animals is to either recreate their original territories/somehow stop all poaching/hunting or rely on captive breeding programs.

Returning animals into the wild so they can "die with dignity" at the hands of poachers and hunters is ludicrous.

pam w.
pam w.6 years ago

Really? Release them WHERE? Back into the forest so more poachers can kill them for body parts? Back into the dwindling "wild" areas? Have you bothered to read any of the posts here? THERE ARE NO SAFE PLACES FOR TIGERS IN THE WILD!

Mervi R.
Mervi R.6 years ago

What a great decision, but there is still a long way to go on the path to a cruelty-free wolrd.

pam w.
pam w.6 years ago

Karen, it's a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching thing, dealing with well-meaning people who are so naive they just don't "get it." I find many of these people haven't been to "wild" areas, such as Africa, India, the Amazon and Borneo. Once you HAVE visited these places, you see how impossibly small "the wild" has become...and how dangerous.

Zoos have changed radically in the past 50 years--for the better, of course. They used to be places where you just took the kids to see animals, and, of course, they still are.

But, increasingly, they're places of education, conservation (as in breeding programs and support for reserves in the wild, too) as well as the source of valuable behavioral studies. (The California Condor has been saved from extinction by techniques largely learned through direct observation in zoos.)

We're only trying to save the world.

Karen C.
Karen C.6 years ago

Some very beautiful thoughts and comments. I am thankful for the sanctuaries and the people that are able to support them. I am grateful also for all of those commenting who are clearly concerned about the welfare of the wildlife on this planet.

I don't know that we could do away with the concept of the zoo as I think it has sometimes served an important function in advocating for wildlife and educating the public. Though this record has been mixed at times, I think that overall, the zoo has evolved in this role. Some animals such as the elephant, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, lions, dolphins, whales, and many social animals have proven to be much more vulnerable in captivity than have other animals. These animals are unfortunately vulnerable in the wild as well. The solutions are not easy - but thank goodness for concerned individuals who keep working to get it right!

Sue A.
Susan A.6 years ago

We do need zoos to protect our animals. Many zoos do it right and genuinely care about their elephants.

pam w.
pam w.6 years ago

Yes...and that's all well and good...BUT--which "wild" will you choose for all these endangered animals? The "wild" where poachers slaughter them? The "wild" where people cut down forests, build farms and buildings? The "wild" in an impoverished country where people kill animals for food and have a long history of believing in "traditional medicine" based on animal parts? The "wild" where native peoples tell YOU to mind your own BUSINESS and leave them and their animals alone?


Oh..and by the way, did you know the Masai people in Kenya are now poisoning bait to kill lions? And that, as a result, not only lions are dying but also hyenas, vultures and other carrion-eaters? THIS is in Virginia McKenna's "wild."

Soo T.
Soo T.6 years ago

Virginia McKenna, who starred in the classic movie Born Free and received an Order of the British Empire in 2003 for her work in behalf of captive animals, says that her participation in Born Free made her realize that “wild animals belonged in the wild, not imprisoned in zoos. … Freedom is a precious concept, and wild animals suffer physically and mentally from the lack of freedom captivity imposes.”