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Although the need to roam is engrained in the elephants' natural history, captivity removes the ultimate, immediate need for roaming...foraging. Much of an animal's natural behavior in the wild is driven by the search of food. In captivity, that need is taken away as zoos obviously feed the animals. How does that change the now affected "natural" behaviors? Issues with captivity now are focused boredom. Providing space does not necessarily answer the problem of boredom when the critical drive for space (food) is taken away. More important than space is quality of care and complexity of space. Do the animals have things to interact with, to change, to have choice in their environment? This is what you should evaluate zoos on, not the simple measure of how many acres an elephant has to roam. However, minimums must be provided...size is an aspect of complexity. Complexity cannot be achieved in a .25 acre enclosure. Additionally, for elephants, the social nature of the captive environment is very very important. The herd is the most important element for an elephant. No zoo should be allowed to have a single or even a couple of elephants. These are my thoughts...I'm in the zoo design industry, and face these ethical issues daily as I try to rectify my love for animals with the educational and conservation power of zoos. Its important for everyone out there, zoo supporters and nay-sayers, to understand this issue is not black and white. And zoos are not (generally) the enemy. (And by the way, most zoos do not receive animals from the wild anymore, with exceptions of some birds and fishes. Personally, I find that practice to be the most repulsive aspect in the zoo world.)

I would just like to say that the African elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park were saved from culling. So regardless of how one feels about elephants in zoo's/animal parks, the preferred result is obvious. They also have plenty of space at the park and have been very successful in breeding, which is a positive sign concerning happiness.

This is a great blog...! I wonder if you might like my blog as well, especially the post I recently did:

http://animalsneedkisses.wordpress.com/2009/03/23/elephants/

I will add you to my blogroll as a notable scientist. :)

Unlike the old days where the zoo bought most of its animals from big game hunters, much of what is displayed has been bred in captivity or involve animals that have been rescued or could no longer survive in the wild (one of the elephants in San Diego is an old Hollywood movie star for example). With regards to endangered species the success of zoos like San Diego to study, breed and reintroduce species back into the wild (the Elephant Odyssey's Condor Exhibit is a prime example) has shown the value of zoos. The worst time to try to save endangered species is when they are endangered species, the best time is beforehand. To study these animals, to provide areas where kids can appreciate these animals is important for their survival. I remember seeing the movie Free Willie and thinking no one would even care about "killer whales" if they hadn't seen them do tricks at parks like Sea World, so its a double-edged sword. Finding the right balance is important and I think the elephant exhibits (San Diego's is the first of several in the U.S. over the next couple years) are striving to find that balance. Given San Diego's track record in creating a bright future for Koalas, Pandas and hundreds of other species I have a lot of confidence in them. The big zoos are doing pretty good work. There's always room for improvement, and as far as I can tell, they're improving.

Stacey, thank you for the framework of "complexity," and how that is important to animals in zoos. Very interesting. Of course, thinking of it from a subjective viewpoint, the idea of being in an unchanging, unstimulating environment (such as a prison) seems intolerable. I have of course seen the sad sad video tapes of elephants swaying back and forth, out of their minds with boredom and depression. Heartbreaking.

I'm fascinated with reading more about what you do on your blog. I've never met a zoo designer. (Readers, if you click on Stacey's name, it will take you to her site.) Yes, the ethical decision making in your job must be profound at times. Surely there are the usual budget and authority restraints that affect any business venture, yet throw in the implications of how those choices affect animals under our stewardship and it must be staggering at times.

Agreed about these issues not being black and white! Sometimes I feel that I should have a strong opinion on a certain conservation topic, but the more I learn the less I know. I'll definitely take a tour of your blog and see what insights I can glean from you.

Thanks again for dropping by Sacred Elephants!

Hello Michael. Thank you for pointing out that the San Diego elephants were saved from culling.

Culling. That's a whole other big topic, one that few of the most famous elephant conservationists can agree on. Personally, I have a big concern about the psychological trauma of elephants who've survived culling. With their ability to communicate subsonically over so many miles, surely they heard the trauma of the others being killed. It's deeply troubling to me. Now I wonder if there was any rehabilitative care for them. Were they traumatized?

Yes, breeding is a good sign.

Will, you have a terrific sense of humor and vivid imagination! But I think you have it all wrong with this elaborate butter and crane kick method of kissing an elephant.

You're really projecting your own desire to plant big kisses with your lips onto the elephant. Elephants don't kiss on the lips, silly! They use the fingerlike tip of their trunks to kiss. Trust me, I've kissed a baby elephant in Kenya before. They like you to smell you first. Elephants eyesight is very poor. They recognize you by smelling you with their trunk. Blowing a kiss into their trunk is what they really love! You can even watch elephants kiss each other this same way sometimes.

Here's a picture of me with a baby elephant named Rapsu, who loved to have "trunk kisses," and also to suck my entire hand like a human baby would suck a pacifier.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/wildsoul/2117604044/in/set-72157594145822526/

Save the butter for the popcorn while we watch Dumbo. Thanks again for dropping by Sacred Elephants, and I'm honored to be on your blog roll!

Ranch, that's a nice balanced viewpoint. Good reminder about how zoos aren't just about being a tourist attraction, but are a means of research and learning. I've been hearing many good things via email about the San Diego zoo in particular since I made this original post, in addition to you kind people who are commenting online.

I took my 5 year old nephew to the Oakland Zoo here in Northern California last Saturday for their annual Celebrating Elephants day. SO MANY people are in love with the elephants. Being in the zoo experience first hand and seeing the looks of wonder and joy reminded me how being in the actual proximity of a living creature, instead of a movie or book, has a strong impact. I still have some existential questions about the correctness of zoos, but given they way our world works, I see value in letting people see and learn from animals directly.

Thanks again for dropping by Sacred Elephants and sharing your thoughts!

I think that the most important thing is that the zoos are making money. Lots and lots of money. They're called "human rights" for a reason. Animals don't feel pain.

As you may have seen on my blog we went to Disnayland recently, and sptoped overnight in San Diego on the way, enjoying a wonderful breakfast at the Broken Yolk Restaurant there. I lived in San Diego as a child and had visited once as an adult, but I didn't remember just how LOVELY a city it is! I was impressed with its charm on this trip! The time before, we had gone to both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park with our then 6 year old daughter, and LOVED both!!!!! I can't wait to go back and see both (and Sea World as well!) with our grandson on a future excursion! Glad you had such glowing things to say about the Zoo! Can't wait to see it again!Marie

Well, we also love the zoo in our family. When I first had bebias a wise women told me to take my kids to the zoo because it is such a wonderful multi-sensory experience. You can see, smell, hear & touch plants & animals. It's a great learning place- for everyone from little bebias to really old bebias. That same wise lady usually gets our family a zoo pass, so we have been to several zoos in our travels. So, the only zoo that I know of that rivals San Diego (both in my opinion & in the polls) is the Columbus Zoo. It's a Jack Hanna Zoo with about 7000 animals. (San Diego has just over 4000.) You don't find more than that unless they are counting aquariums. Another great zoo is the National Zoo (DC). I also really like the Cleveland Zoo. It's actually amazing to me how much better the zoos are in the east. (More taxes, I guess.) However, I do think the Oakland Zoo & SF Zoo are pretty good now they they have make some improvements. Here are some other good zoos you should check out if you get the chance: Pittsburgh, Philly, Bronx, Phoenix, Cincinnati. (I also hear the Indy Zoo is good, never been there.) Another zoo that I want to go to is the one in Chicago (called by another name). There are also some great aquariums & zoo like places, like Sea World, that are amazing. Have Fun!

After such a long debate the good thing is that there is a new member in San Diego zoo. I hope it would be a more fun while visiting the zoo and new member would also be the pleasant one.
San Diego zoo is my one of the favorite tourist spots in California. I also have written some text about it. Please have a look. http://www.joguru.com/san-diego-zoo-san-diego-united-states
It was a great enjoyable experience of visiting the zoo and I would definitively love to be here again. I hope you like written content as well.

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About the Author

  • Jaya Savannah in Samburu, Kenya
Jaya Savannah

I'm passionate about wild elephant conservation. It's something that has overtaken my heart and soul. After a trip to Kenya, where I went to see wild elephants and meet some of my conservationist heroes, I returned to Northern California, asking, "What can I do to help?" So I began writing.

My intention for Sacred Elephants is to raise awareness about elephant conservation by touching your heart, enlightening your mind, and trumpeting a call out to your elephant-loving spirit.

I'm also looking for opportunities to work with other elephant philanthropists for events, travel/tourism, corporate social responsiblity ventures, and media productions. I also accept requests to review elephant books, DVD's, and other products.

Thank you for reading and helping to save our elephant friends!

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  • Jaya Savannah International
    Business coaching, consulting & training services for holistic lifestyle companies, spas, salons, alternative health & spiritual practitioners.