Thank you to Wanda, one of my elephant-loving readers for sharing this topic with us.
Click here to download a full-size PDF of the Elephant Odyssey Flyer.
The San Diego Zoo is nearing completion of their new and improved elephant exhibit, Elephant Odyssey, scheduled to open on Memorial Day of 2009. The $45 million estimated construction costs are for the creation of a 7-acre mostly outdoor habitat designed to enclose the zoo's eight elephants. However, a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the elephants will truly have access to only 3 acres.
Read the full article here: Room to Roam, San Diego Union-Tribune
The new exhibit brings up an elephant-sized ethical quandary. Is it alright to keep elephants in zoos at all, and if so, what are the proper parameters? As with other elephant conservation topics, many of the experts are divided. I am certainly no expert, but consider myself a conservationist at heart, having a fondness and sympathy for these precious pachyderms. I have still not settled into a firm position on elephants in zoos.
Unlike other more purist conservationists, I do see some educational value in zoos. Perhaps in these days of multimedia internet and whole television channels devoted to animal programs we could declare that the need to import live animals is obsolete. Yet I can still vividly remember the wonder and awe of inserting my elephant-shaped key into the recorded description box at the San Francisco Zoo's elephant exhibit when I was a little girl. Oh, how I adored the elephants! That feeling of being close and in love with them was powerful. I think that being able to emotionally and intellectually connect with live animals in a conservation-minded setting can inspire people to become more cognizant of those animals and their needs.
Recently, I took my 5 year old nephew to that same zoo. I delighted in watching his face light up as we made sure to visit all of his favorite animals. (I think they are all his favorites!) He made me proud as he read the "please whisper near the gorilla exhibit" sign, and dutifully tried to hush the other children who were shouting nearby. I felt a twinge of sadness as I remember writing a letter to my legislator in favor of banning elephants at the San Francisco zoo, due to the inadequate (less than 1 acre) facilities and deaths of 2 elephants there in 2004. Looking at the faded stucco building that used to house them, and knowing that it was empty inside made me feel better. The only elephant in that area now is a cute bronze statue of a baby ellie.
The Oakland Zoo has done a lot to turn around their elephant care reputation by creating one of the country's first protected-care facilities that allows elephants to avoid direct contact with keepers (trainer bullying was a problem for the Oakland Zoo in the past.) Oakland elephants have about 6.5 acres of space they can roam on. The photo below is taken while on a "back stage" tour of the zoo, where Colleen (the head keeper) was introducing us to Osh, the bull elephant there. (That's me, shielding my eyes from the late-afternoon sun as I'm looking at Osh.)
Photo ©2006 Jaya Savannah.
It's worth mentioning as not everyone knows this: elephants are migratory creatures. In the wild, they roam for 30-50 miles per day. This is one of the reasons that elephants and humans have conflicts (besides ivory poaching.) Migrating elephants will roam and forage, eating and destroying the vegetation in their path. They are a dangerous nuisance to farmers. Yet it's our over-expansion into elephant territory that creates this problem in the first place. We all need room to coexist.
In zoos, elephants are deprived of the space needed for them to roam naturally. This causes them many health issues, most notably foot ailments, but also obesity, mental stress, shortened lifespans, and other problems.
The article "Room to roam," has a reader poll in a column to the right. The question is "What should zoos do about elephants?" The poll options are:
- Standard enclosures are fine, it's a shame so many are shutting down.
- Larger enclosures like the one San Diego is building are the responsible course.
- Zoos should stay out of the elephant business, it can't be done humanely.
Today, I voted for the 2nd option about larger enclosures and responsible care, and 67% of poll responders agreed. Yet I still don't feel settled with my opinion. Part of me also agrees with the 30% of people who voted that it can't be done humanely. 7 acres for 8 elephants still seems woefully small to me. It only sounds better when compared to the prison yards they were in previously.
My only reason that supports elephants in zoos being somewhat useful is that I think education is so important. Surely, if we have any intelligence at all, we can find other ways to help people learn about and become interested in elephant conservation. Large wildlife parks in the animal's native regions seems to be the only truly humane solution. Perhaps larger safari-style parks here in the states could work. Yes, to me that sounds like a better compromise: minimum space requirements starting at something like 40-acres and up.
What are your thoughts on elephants in zoos?