More U.S. Zoos Closing Elephant Exhibits

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
March 2, 2006
After more than a century of displaying elephants, the Bronx Zoo in New
York announced plans last month to shut down its elephant exhibit after
the animals die.

The announcement comes at a time when some U.S. zoos are debating whether to continue keeping elephants in captivity.

Officials decided to close the Bronx exhibit for the benefit of Maxine, Patty, and Happy—all in their mid-30s and residents at the zoo for some three decades.

"Committing to elephants into the future would require us to build up a new herd, and there is no guarantee that our three girls would accept new elephants," said Bronx Zoo spokesperson Alison Power.

Given their age, the Asian elephants could remain on display for another 5, 10, or 20 years.

Growing Trend

A handful of U.S. zoos, including ones in San Francisco and Chicago, have recently closed their elephant exhibits.

Central Park and Prospect Park zoos, both in New York, stopped displaying elephants in the 1980s.

Last year, the Detroit Zoo in Michigan sent its aging and arthritic elephants—Winky, 52, and Wanda, 46—to a California sanctuary to live out their remaining years.

"Just as polar bears don't thrive in a hot climate, Asian elephants shouldn't live in small groups without many acres to roam," Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan said at the time.

"They clearly shouldn't have to suffer the winters of the North."

What's more, animal activists are pushing hard to get zoos—most recently those in Los Angeles, Tucson, and Washington, D.C.—to close their elephant exhibits, arguing that captive environments do not meet the animals' physical or behavioral needs.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) feels that "animal rights extremist groups" are creating controversy where there is none.

"AZA elephant experts have continued to use science, research, and their years of direct animal-care expertise to continually improve elephant care and conservation, both in zoos and in the wild," said Kristin Vehrs, AZA's interim executive director, in a written statement.

New Elephant Center

Of the 78 AZA member zoos that exhibit elephants, 40 are planning to build or expand habitats in the next five years.

In January the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium announced plans to develop an International Conservation Center in rural Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

The 724-acre (293-hectare) center will focus on African elephant breeding and management programs. Habitats will accommodate up to 20 elephants, including 5 males. (See photo: African elephants in the wild.)

The new center will be the first and only facility run by an AZA-accredited zoo with such a strong emphasis on African elephants.

Now more than ever before, breeding programs are a top priority for zoos, because the captive elephant population is not sustaining itself.

Of the 300 African and Asian elephants in AZA zoos, only 17 will be left in 50 years, one study predicts, and those will be too old to breed.

Elephant Treadmill

At the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, improvements were recently made to its elephant habitat, including the construction of a U.S. $100,000 treadmill for the zoo's lone pachyderm.

The changes came about after questions were raised about whether Maggie, a 22-year-old African elephant, was happy living alone in such a cold environment.

In the winter, temperatures frequently dip below freezing, preventing Maggie from going outside for days or weeks.

After consulting with wildlife experts, the zoo's board of directors voted in 2004 to keep Maggie, instead of sending her to another facility, as long as certain improvements were made.

Within the next month, the 7,500-pound (3,400-kilogram) elephant is expected to use the indoor treadmill for the first time, said assistant director Patrick Lampi.

Ideally, he said, the zoo would like her to spend 30 minutes on the machine three times a day.

"Which is just a brisk walk for an elephant," he noted.

In the wild, elephants migrate over long distances and live in well-structured social groups.

The AZA, which sets animal care guidelines, recommends female elephants be kept in groups of at least three.

In lieu of obtaining more elephants, though, the Alaska zoo increased the number of handlers and the time they spend with her.

The elephant's barn was also enlarged and equipped with new ventilation, heating, and lighting.

Stress tests will be conducted periodically to see how Maggie adjusts to her new lifestyle.

In August 2007, Lampi said, the board will re-evaluate its decision on whether to keep Maggie.

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