10 Worst Zoos for Elephants in 2016

The plight of African and Asian elephants in the wild continues to make international headlines, but much less attention is paid to the many ways they’re suffering in captivity right here in our own backyards.

Despite knowing how much space they need, how intelligent they are, and how vital their relationships are, humans continue to confine elephants, tear them from friends and family members, and ruthlessly exploit them in the name of education and conservation.

Some of the biggest issues, and worst offenders, were just highlighted again in the latest list of the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants, which is released annually by In Defense of Animals (IDA).

The list, which includes a Top Ten, along with a Dishonorable Mention and an Elephant Hall of Shame that highlights “repeat offenders who have made little to no progress improving conditions for elephants,” covers some of the most egregious treatment of elephants being held in zoos in North America. Problems range from blatant abuse, chronic health issues, the use of bullhooks, reckless breeding and isolation to keeping them in inappropriate climates in inadequate enclosures – in many cases in violation of the standards that have been set in an attempt to ensure their welfare – among other issues.

“Zoos are consumers, not conservers, of elephants,” said IDA’s Elephant Scientist, Toni Frohoff, Ph.D. “Captive elephants are dying faster than they can reproduce, leading zoos to steal young elephants from the wild, which destroys the elephant societies zoos claim to be conserving. Behind the scenes, zoos in the US and Canada are condemning Earth’s largest land mammals to lifetimes of deprivation, disease, despair, and early death. It is time to end our shameful exploitation of elephants in American zoos.”

The Worst Zoo in 2016

Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma

unspecifiedCredit: Public Record via Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants

When Washington’s Woodland Park Zoo finally closed its elephant exhibit, it was hoped its two remaining elephants, Bamboo and Chai, would live out their days in a sanctuary. Instead, their future would be a heartbreaking one at the Oklahoma City Zoo. After arriving, Chai lost about 1000 pounds, had a bacterial infection in her bloodstream, untreated abscesses and other chronic health problems and was unable to stand up on her own on multiple occasions. Just eight weeks after arriving, she was found dead.

Bamboo hasn’t fared well either. She has attacked a calf, and has been bullied herself on multiple occasions, which has left her with serious injuries. As a result, she is often kept in isolation, which we know is incredibly harmful for such a socially complex species.

Even more concerning is that the zoo knowingly exposed two young calves, Malee and her little sister Aschara, to the elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) by accepting Bamboo and Chai. Malee sadly died from the same strain, while Achara was sickened.

You can help by signing and sharing the petition calling on the Oklahoma City Zoo to do the right thing by sending Bamboo to a sanctuary.


Buttonwood Park Zoo, New Bedford, Massachusetts

Buttonwood Park Zoo 1 Ruth & Emily CREDIT Friends of Ruth and EmilyCredit: Friends of Ruth and Emily Inc.

This is the seventh year in a row that the Buttonwood Park Zoo has appeared on the list, which has earned it this shameful distinction. The zoo has pledged to close its exhibit once its two elephants, Ruth and Emily, pass away, but it’s being called out yet again for failing to act to protect these two incompatible elephants from each other and leaving them in a dangerous situation.

Emily and Ruth don’t get along, and Ruth has been seriously injured by her ‘companion’ and has developed other health conditions as a result of her stressful living situation.  Instead of moving the two to a more appropriate environment where they could choose their own friends, the zoo is going to waste $2 million on upgrading their enclosure. Unfortunately, it’s not going to help the situation. It’s only going to doom these two to spending the rest of their days in misery.


Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

Bronx Zoo 1 Happy and keepers CREDIT Rosana DelgadoCredit: Rosana Delgado

The Bronx Zoo is among others that have announced it would close its exhibit once one or more of its elephants died. Unfortunately, it’s been a decade and its three Asian elephants are still there waiting. Two of them, Patty and Maxine, are bonded and kept together, but the third, Happy, is being kept in solitary confinement. She has been without a friend since her companion Grumpy died as a result of being attacked by Patty and Maxine in 2002.

IDA notes that the Wildlife Conservation Society, the zoo’s parent company, has done good work to help wild elephants, but it now has no excuse for failing to act on behalf of these three, and especially for leaving Happy in isolation.

You can help by signing and sharing the petition calling on the Wildlife Conservation Society to send Happy to a sanctuary.

The Full List

1. Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma

2. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia

3. Honolulu Zoo, Hawaii

4. Edmonton Valley Zoo, Alberta, Canada

5. Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

6. Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York

7. Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon

8. Pittsburgh Zoo, Pennsylvania

9. Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

10. Fort Worth Zoo, Fort Worth, Texas

“2016 was a shocking year for zoo elephant suffering,” said IDA’s President, Dr. Marilyn Kroplick. “In our zoos, elephants’ rights are violated, they are stripped of their dignity, and submitted to disgusting abuses. We owe it to elephants to stop exploiting them. It is time to shut down archaic and barbaric zoo exhibits, and retire elephants to sanctuaries where they can live in peace.”

While many people continue to believe keeping elephants in zoos is contributing to conservation efforts, there is no value in continuing to keep them this way. There might be if there were any plans to return them them to wild, but that isn’t the intention of the Species Survival Program for elephants at U.S. zoos. None of these elephants, or their young, will ever experience a day of freedom in their natural environment.

For more information on the elephants at these facilities, how to help elephants in captivity and to learn more about how zoos are failing them, check out the 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Christine J
Christine J9 months ago

Petitions signed.

Marie W
Marie W12 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Nang Hai C
Nang Hai Cabout a year ago


Carol C
Carol Cabout a year ago

A horrible situation that should not be allowed to continue.

Alison A
Alison Aabout a year ago

Thanks, this is awful, all active petitions signed.

Sue Magee
Sue Mabout a year ago

Shocking that some zoos appear to be nothing whatsoever to help!

Sandra Vito
Sandra Vabout a year ago


Lea S
Lea Silholabout a year ago

All (active) petitions signed. Thanks for the intel.

Elizabeth O
Elizabeth Oabout a year ago

Thanks for the article.

Valerie A
Valerie Aabout a year ago