144 Pills a Day: This is the Life of a Captive Zoo Elephant Named Mama

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 its 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.

Mamas 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.

Retiring Elephants

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 youd want to see? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Tobias


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Christine Stewart

At least the zoo is doing everything they can to keep her comfortable and mentally stimulated. Sanctuaries are obviously great, but the public isn't even allowed to see the elephants enjoying their lush habitat. Surely there can be some kind of compromise: a bigger habitat for the ellies, but visitation rights for animal lovers?

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

97% of this poll says to let the captive zoo elephants retire to sanctuaries! I was one of them!

Sarah D.
Misss D3 years ago

To finish:
But the fact is, that without certain projects, species would be extinct without zoos' work and this does mean captivity in some cases. You may think that this is OK in that to lose some entire species totally is preferable to keeping some individuals in captivity for conservation needs.

You asked before if species conservation is for me or the animal? It's for me, for you, for the animal, for the ecoystem of which it is a part and for the world. To explain, when a species becomes extinct it leaves a ‘gap’ in the ecosystem. When too many species go extinct, they leave so many gaps that eventually other species start disappearing at random. The ecosystem has started to unravel. We need to prevent extinctions in order to protect the ecosystems and habitats from crumbling. Captive breeding is one way (of several - granted) to help prevent this.

If you wish for all zoos to be closed, then you will need to propose a solution to the problem of who/what will replace the conservation work that they carry out, and how they will do it if you ban captivity.

Sarah D.
Misss D3 years ago

Hi Ruhee, we seem to be going round in circles because you will not engage with the arguments that I have put forward. I do empathise with zoo animals ('‘There are some really awful, terrible zoos out there') but my empathy is not the point.

You state that you will 'NEVER subscribe to the fact that any of the "conservation" done by zoos gives them an excuse them to imprision animals.' Why have you put conservation in apostrophes? Is it because you do not believe that conservation work is carried out by zoos? I have given several solid examples of this taking place.
Is it because you believe that this work could be carried out by other organisations instead? The Centre for Biological Diversity, which you mentioned, mainly campaigns for habitat protection and to list species under the Endangered Species Act. They do not engage in captive breeding programmes, species reintroduction, holding insurance populations etc. Sanctuaries usually do not carry out these activities either.
Is it because you believe that conservation should only ever be carried out in situ?
Whilst this is preferable, I have given several solid examples of when this would not be appropriate or when ex situ works to support the in situ work.

The animals are imprisoned. It's an emotive term but yes, they do lose something in not being totally free. (Maybe not the Kihansi Spray Toad; they probably couldn't tell the difference, but I think the others I mentioned before probably can.) But the fa

Ruhee B.
Ruhee B3 years ago

Sahar D - you are defending the "good" zoos valiantly. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a "good" zoo. Perhaps you ought to truly try and put yourself in the shoes of a zoo animal - please try to have some empathy for them. Animals have feelings and emotions yet most people just think of them as some comodity to be exploited in whatever way possible.

Despite all your arguements, I will NEVER subscribe to the fact that any of the "conservation" done by zoos gives them an excuse them to imprision animals.

All I am saying is that the conservation you talk about SHOULD and CAN be done without the need to keep intelligent, beautiful, innocent animals locked up for the rest of their lives.

sarah D.
Misss D3 years ago

To finish:

The Centre for Biological Diversity protect habitats via legal means, lobbies government and campaigns. Whilst this is necessary, it also should be supported by other actions appropriate to the species concerned - captive breeding, research, species reintroductions and the insurance populations that zoos hold – the CBD does not do this. This is not so say that the CPD's work is not essential, it is, but it’s not the same as what good zoos do and it all, along with in situ fieldwork needs to be done if species are to be preserved. Good research zoos are not the answer, on their own, but they can support other organisations to help the planet’s most imperiled species.

sarah D.
Misss D3 years ago

Hi Ruhee B, No, I don’t work for a zoo or in any related industry. I never said that ‘caging innocent animals’ is commensurate with species preservation - in response to a particular comment from yourself ('Zoos are cruel, animal prisons. They can never replicate an animals natural environment. Zoos serve just for the gratification of humans nothing more) I, in my very first post, made the simple point that some zoos carry out essential work with regards to species conservation and I gave some examples of this work, ending with ‘There are some really awful, terrible zoos out there and there are others that do amazing, groundbreaking and absolutely vital work. Please don't tar the latter with the former's brush.’ I am afraid that, in your posts, you have been doing just that without properly engaging in the arguments that I have put forward. Your argument is a blanket statement about all zoos without taking any of the arguments that I have put forward into account. My argument takes into account your viewpoint (that there are bad zoos), but tempers it with the essential work that some, good zoos, do. This work is not carried out by the Center for Biological Diversity. They protect habitats via legal means, lobby government and campaign. Whilst this is necessary, it also should be supported by (appropriate to the species concerned) captive breeding, research, species reintroductions and the insurance populations that zoos hold – the CBD does not do

Glenda L.
Glenda L3 years ago

I will never visit another zoo, or any place that makes money from captive animals. I did in the past, my only excuse is ignorance. No elephant should be kept captive, all should be released to sanctuaries, and more money should be spent on preserving them in the wild.

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Is this humane?