The Use of Elephants in Western Zoos

July 22, 2019


History of the Zoo! 


Zoos originated from menageries, an eclectic collection of mostly exotic animals often housed by powerful empires or people. These menageries symbolised wealth and power, as they often boasted large, dangerous and foreign creatures demonstrating a high degree of skill and capabilities needed for acquisition. These menageries evolved over time into the more contemporary zoos that we recognise today, after 17th century academics’ studies began to appreciate the nature rather than objectify it.  The Animal Garden, Vienna, (est. 1752) is considered to be the first menagerie we would call a zoo. The historical continuity of adaptability to change in response to evolving attitudes towards nature the animals in it, and their welfare [1].  


The Zoo - Elephant Relationship


Elephants have been a staple animal in menageries and zoos for the majority of their existence. They were sort after animals to boast, for the same reasons that people love to experience them now (humungous megavertebrates, elegant and have almost human-like personalities). However, only until recently have the relationship of zoos and elephants started to reach an end. 


Many zoos have either removed their elephants from their zoos or have announced to do so in the near future after admitting that they cannot supply the appropriate care in captivity, especially in western climates [2].

In the wild, elephant travel around 30 miles a day, and spend most of that time foraging and interacting with their ever changing surroundings. They spend a large majority of these days being active, generally up to 18 hours a day. They live in matriarchal herds which can reach up to 50 individuals (often African elephants have even larger herds!) and are creatures that maintain complex and diverse relationships in the wild with close relatives and extended family. Unfortunately, these aspects are largely restricted in a zoo enclosure which not only lead to physical disabilities often from the lack of movement, but also an array of long-term mental trauma.


The association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is the standard used by zoos to determine the ‘ideal’ care for an elephant in a zoo. This association however has been accused of prioritising money over the welfare of animals. For example, their standard allows elephants to be in near/total seclusion, live in cold northern climates as cold as 5°C and have a minimum of 500 square metres of outdoor space [3]!

Although zoos don’t always replicate an authentic wild life for their inhabitants, there is still the opinion that elephants are integral for educating younger generations about our natural world.  


A study by Eric Jensen (2014) investigating the understanding of children aged 7-15 years old of zoo animals and their natural habitats before and after a zoo visit. This study concluded that unguided visits result in a poorer understanding, whereas those accompanied by a zoo keeper achieved a more accurate understanding of an animal and it’s ecology [4].

Others believe that regardless of how the animals are explained, elephants in captivity poorly represent their wild counterparts. Keith Lindsay of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (which provides homes for elephants that have been evicted from zoos consequent of recent laws that prevents the usage of performing elephants) said, “It is much better to watch films of real elephants behaving naturally—walking, feeding, playing, mating, fighting—in truly natural social groups of up to hundreds of animals ranging widely across ecosystems than to see miserable captive elephants standing around in a bare enclosure, no matter how ‘naturalistic’ the landscaping design may be.” [5].

Another argument is that many zoos facilitate breeding programmes labelling it as a contribution to the conservation of their species in the wild. The sad reality is that captive bred calves will forever remain that way. Captive. Breeding programmes are used as a vail to mask the fact they’re just a method to attract visitors to see cute babies, and in turn, bring in revenue [2]. 


Refuge in a Sanctuary


The world’s opinion is evolving. And we are now seeing more and more elephants make the change over to sanctuaries from zoos. Sanctuaries are now built with the welfare of the elephants at their core. Most sanctuaries (and indeed many zoos) operate with a protected contact policy which limits contact with elephants to only essential purposes. They aim to replicate their wild environments and interactions as mentioned before, with what is achievable in western countries. Elephant Haven is an up and coming sanctuary located in Nouvelle-Aquitaine Region of France. Established in 2016 Elephant Haven is currently constructing barns and enclosures to provide refuge for ex-performing elephants in Europe, unable to be relocated to their country of origin. This sanctuary’s core values are based around education and re-connection of nature. In America, the Elephant Sanctuary Tennessee currently houses 28 individuals with combined land coverage of 2,700 acres providing diverse and wild-like habitats, which offers only restricted public viewing. Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil is another Sanctuary offering refuge for ex-performing elephants. With just 2 elephants they are working to build on donations so they are able to expand their land and homing facilities to bring more working elephants to a land where they can, just. be. elephants! 



  1. pp. 119-128 (12 pages)









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