10 Worst Zoos For Elephants

Every year In Defense of Animals (IDA) releases a list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants, and 2013 was no exception. For the tenth year in a row IDA has highlighted the suffering that captivity causes these sensitive giants and the lies the zoo industry continues to spread in order to stay in business.

“Ten years should have been enough, but as long as zoos continue to house elephants in substandard exhibits that sacrifice the animals’ welfare, IDA will continue to call out the worst offenders,” said Nicole Meyer, Director of IDA’s Elephant Protection Campaign. “It’s high time for the zoo industry to stop paying lip service and start taking meaningful action to improve conditions for the hundreds of elephants languishing―and dying prematurely―in zoos across North America.”

The question of whether to keep elephants in zoos has been a divisive one, with zoos continuing to claim that they’re playing an important role in conservation as wild populations of elephants in Africa and Asia continue to decline, but what we’ve learned about the consequences of keeping elephants in captivity offers compelling evidence that they belong in the wild and every effort should be made to protect them there, not wasted on keeping them in zoos.

Studies have shown that elephants don’t fare well in captivity. Their life spans are significantly shorter than those of their wild counterparts, they’re prone to a host of behavioral issues and physical problems, the emotional ties they form with other elephants are often disregarded as they’re split up and swapped by various facilities, and their social needs are completely ignored when they’re kept in isolation.

The conservation argument might work if the goal was to reintroduce them to the wild, but elephants in zoos are not bred for reintroduction. That’s just not a goal of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) African or Asian Elephant Species Survival Plans (SSP), and many have argued that in order to have an SSP for elephants that’s sustainable over the long-term, more will need to be imported from range countries, which will further harm individuals and wild populations.

Animal advocates also don’t consider AZA standards sufficient for providing elephants proper care and argue that even accredited zoos have questionable ties with the entertainment industry that need to end.

Since IDA started making this list, it has expanded from U.S. zoos to include Canadian zoos and an Elephant Hall of Shame for “repeat offenders who have made little to no progress improving conditions for elephants.”

This year the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Ill., was inducted for moving its two elephants, Sophie and Babe, to the Little Rock Zoo, another substandard facility with a history of tuberculosis, instead of taking the opportunity to have them moved to a sanctuary. The Bowmanville Zoo in Bowmanville, Canada, was also inducted for keeping its female elephant Limba in solitary confinement and forcing her to continue performing at events while she was ill. She was euthanized two weeks after being forced to march in a parade and was the fifth elephant to die there in seven years.

While some facilities are working to improve their enclosures, 26 zoos have closed, or will be closing, their elephant exhibits for reasons that range from a lack of funding to expand exhibits to welfare concerns, such as inadequate space, unsuitably cold climates and insufficient social groups. Continued pressure from the public concerning the welfare of elephants at zoos continues has paid off in some cases.

The Toronto Zoo’s addition to the list in 2009 ignited campaigns to have its last three elephants moved to a sanctuary that finally met success when Iringa, Toka and Thika arrived at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California this October. Similar efforts are underway to move elephants from other zoos to sanctuaries, including Woodland Park Zoo’s trio – Bamboo, Chai and Watoto – and Lucky, who is currently living alone at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas.

The worst offenders on IDA’s most recent list include:

1. San Antonio Zoo – San Antonio, Texas
2. Edmonton Valley Zoo – Edmonton, Canada
3. Little Rock Zoo – Little Rock, Arkansas
4. Buttonwood Park Zoo – New Bedford, Massachusetts
5. Bronx Zoo – Bronx, New York
6. St. Louis Zoo – St. Louis, Missouri
7. Woodland Park Zoo – Seattle, Washington
8. Oregon Zoo – Portland, Oregon
9. Wildlife Safari – Winston, Oregon
10. Denver Zoo – Denver, Colorado

For more info on why elephant exhibits need to be shut down and how to help captive elephants, visit IDA’s top 10 list and HelpElephants.com. For info on how to help support elephants in sanctuaries, visit PAWS and the Elephant Sanctuary.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Michele Rosenbaum
m r1 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

john pierce
John Pierce3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Angela Ray
Angela Ray4 years ago

So...Once we "set the animals free", what are they set free to? Cancer, disease, viral-infected, polluted, intoxicated, poisonous environment; and poachers?

Angela Ray
Angela Ray4 years ago

Actually, zoos, animal sanctuaries, wildlife animal parks and even aquariums are the most safe places for all wildlife these days. Animals are exposed not only to sick poachers and over-fishing; but more critically important is our filthy and toxic environment that humans have created! The water in aquariums is filtered; we humans drink filtered, more purified water. I hope the animals in zoos are getting the same clean water. Our wildlife species are more vunerable now to cancer, deformities, disease and death. If we're not going to take care of plane earth which sustains all wildlife, and clean up our environment then we have no choice but to take care of the animals ourselves! That's the way it has to be.

Alexandra G.
Alexandra G4 years ago

thanks for sharing - petition signed

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle4 years ago

I am surprised to see the Portland Zoo listed. They could use more funding and more land, but they were one of the first zoos in the nation to successfully breed elephants in captivity.

Kat Lover
Rekha S4 years ago

Horrible places! So sad that elephants are having to stay here.

Rehana VN
Rehana VN4 years ago