We Appreciate the Effort, But Elephants Will Never Thrive in Your Zoo

An investigation conducted by the Seattle Times into captive elephants and elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., last year uncovered a disturbing truth: Despite claims from the industry that elephants are thriving in zoos, they are not and they never will. In fact, for every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die.

Maybe it’s the celebrations that surround the births of these precious pachyderms that distract from ongoing problems with captivity and deaths that go largely unmentioned. For zoos, the babies bring in the crowds. However, when they grow older the crowds wane and these gentle giants are forced to live out the rest of their lives in enclosures that don’t meet their needs, while they’re also subjected to being continuously shipped around for breeding and loan programs.

For the Woodland Park Zoo, there’s a long history of problems for the elephants in its care.

In response to outcry generated by the Seattle Times’ scathing investigation and a citizen petition, an “Elephant Task Force” was recently set up to examine elephant health and the breeding program at the zoo, which concluded that the three elephants who reside there–Chai, Bamboo and Watoto–are well cared for, but a few small environmental changes could be made to improve their lives.

However, organizations including In Defense of Animals and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants are protesting the findings from the task force on the grounds that it’s just a public relations ploy to promote the zoo’s interests and not the interests of the elephants.

An article in the Seattle Times following the last task force meeting raised concerns about the group being “heavily seeded with current and former zoo-board members as well as financial supporters,” thus having conflicts of interest. According to IDA, the task force was convened entirely by the zoo with four members being current zoo board members and a co-chair who is a former zoo board director.The group has refused to consult with any recommended elephant experts who could provide an objective assessment of elephant welfare at the zoo.

Conflicts of interests aside, it’s time for the zoo to let these three elephants, along with Sri who is on loan to the St. Louis Zoo, go to a sanctuary. They’ve been kept in small enclosures for decades and have less than an acre to roam, while one of them is constantly kept isolated from the others. All three suffer from arthritis, while Bamboo and Chai have chronic foot infections. They’ve all also endured past abuses that range from being chained in place for prolonged periods to beatings and all now show stereotypic neurotic behavior.

The breeding program has also been an epic failure, and part of the reason the zoo was listed for the fourth time this year onIDA’s Top Ten List of Worst Zoos for Elephants.

Following 91 failed attempts to artificially inseminate Chai over the years, the zoo finally started working on plans to send her to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., which was a known source of a lethal virus that affects elephants elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV). Chai’s behavior changed there and she was chained and beaten with a bullhook, according to witnesses. Eventually she returned home pregnant and gave birth to Hansa, for what was Washington’s first elephant birth. According to the Seattle Times, following her birth the zoo’s revenue doubled.

Sadly, Hansa was found dead on the floor one morning at the tender age of six in 2007 as a result of the herpes virus. A few years later, attempts to breed Chai via artificial insemination began again and have reached a total of 112. For Sri, attempted breeding resulted in a stillborn calf who she still carries inside of her.

Is it Worth It?

While the zoo industry continues to claim that elephants in captivity are well cared for and contribute to conservation efforts, the numbers don’t add up. According to the Seattle Times investigation, of the 390 deaths at accredited zoos in the past 50 years, most died at a fraction of their normal lifespan from injuries or diseases linked to conditions of their captivity.

In order to sustain a population in captivity, zoos will need to bring in 10 new females every year. For an industry that claims to be promoting conservation efforts, potentially taking elephants from the wild or the entertainment industry to increase the numbers doesn’t do anything to support populations in the wild, which is where they should be.

For the girls at Woodland Park Zoo, the task force recommended converting floors, discontinuing isolation and breeding Chai again with a bull, but their advocates don’t believe it’s enough and think they should all be moved to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which has offered to take them in.

There they’ll be allowed to roam and engage in natural behaviors in a climate that is more suited to them. At the very least, an independent task force should be assembled to decide their fate.

They certainly deserve better than this:


Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim V3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Christine Stewart

Pam W the problem with this specific Zoo is the dozens of attempts at artificial insemination, and the one pregnancy from a herpes infected elephant that resulted in the eventual death of the baby. Not a lot of choice in that whole reproduction set up.

Dimitris Dallis
Past Member 5 years ago

Thank you for sharing this Alicia.

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vaga5 years ago


Donna Ferguson
Donna F5 years ago

thank you for the article and the thought-provoking comments.

christina rivers
christina r5 years ago

Plus they're not induced fantasies either. That's just how cruel the world can be and unfortunately that's how animals live. Survival of the fittest. They even deal with their own kind when it comes to weakness or any that are dying. Have you seen what animals do to their own kind?? If you haven't then you have no clue on how the animal kingdom really is full of brutality and for the most part that's how they has survived on their own for thousands even tens of thousands of years. They know what to do with their own kind better than us humans do.

christina rivers
christina r5 years ago

I personally don't care how you look at it. In a good way or bad these large majestic creatures DON'T belong in tiny reserves travel miles upon miles when in the wild in one day. Short lived or long lived it's just not right to keep them like that, in that state more elephants develop mentality issues and are constantly stressed out, and god knows how much abuse they do suffer behind close doors. For me it would be like when I worked for the Ontario Humane Society in Canada and everyone smiles and thinks awwwww what cute cats or dogs, yet they have no idea that only 20 feet from them are cold cement walls and floors and you HAVE to wear ear muffs because their cries just eat away at your heart. Plus there are a majority of them that are lined up and scheduled for being put to sleep. Do people really think it's any different for any animal at the zoo?? Really are you that far from reality that you can't use your common knowledge??

pam w.
pam w5 years ago


Look up this word......ANTHROPOMORPHISM.

If you HAVE worked in an accredited zoo, you know that zoo elephants are better nourished, live longer lives and have far fewer joint/foot problems than elephants in the wild. A recent independent study of elephants in all 70 accredited US zoos found this to be true. They've learned that zoo elephants suffer less effects from prolonged musth (males) and fertility issues than ''wild'' animals.

Face facts....considering how many ''wild'' elephants live in small reserves, shut off from wildlife corridors by human cities, farms and plantations, at risk from poachers....they ARE ''captive."

If you don't understand that...you're living in a self-induced fantasy.

Amaia Biewen
Amaia B5 years ago

people don't need to have worked in zoos to know they would hate to be forcibly inpregnated, so why should elephants be? its like rape...