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How Long Do Elephants Live in Zoos?

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Two elephants at the Toronto Zoo, Thika and Toka. Controversially pegged to be sent to P.A.W.S.

Two elephants at the Toronto Zoo, Thika and Toka. Controversially pegged to be sent to P.A.W.S.

Controversy Over Captive Zoo Elephants

It seems as though investigative reporter for the Seattle Times, Michael J. Berens, believes he’s latched onto another "story of the year" in his recent series that lampoons AZA-accredited zoological facilities for their conflicts regarding the state of elephant captivity, their compromised efforts in maintaining a self-sustaining elephant population and successfully producing calves via techniques of artificial insemination.

The report “Elephants are Dying out in America’s Zoos” cherry-picks terms to maintain an overall disdainful interpretation of the methods zoos are using to increase their captive elephant populations. The article highlights that the infant-mortality rates in zoos are “almost triple the rate in the wild” at a “staggering 40 percent."

Zoo elephants

Zoo elephants

The associated video report ("Glamour Beasts: The Dark Side of Elephant Captivity") insinuates that zoos fret over producing a viable captive elephant population simply because they are star attractions, with births of their young becoming an effective draw for crowds and, in effect, increased donations.

I’m unaware if Berens is on the attack against zoos because of existing personal ideological sentiment or if he’s been encouraged by the prospects of journalistic success that such a controversial subject will inevitably produce. As Berens has stated, elephants are "glamour beasts," and any other such issues occurring with less alluring animal species would be lost on the majority of the public.

This is probably why the public, while disturbed to learn of the existence of stereotypical behavior in some zoo elephants, are completely unaware that similar issues exist with domesticated horses and other domesticated livestock.

Either way, his series is misleading, perhaps intentionally, and is representative of an increasing wave of misguided hatred toward animal captivity in nearly any form, stemming from the proliferation of ignorance and misinformation typically by "animal rights" special interest groups.

Such is the case with the aforementioned horses; improved care, not ending captivity, is an appropriate remedy in a majority of cases when it comes to the care of non-domesticated animals and wildlife. The captive husbandry of elephants clearly poses a challenge in the zoo environment, and just as they always have and are continuing to do, accredited zoos are evolving to meet the elevated needs of these animals.

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The "Failure" of the Zoo’s Mission

Fifty years later, The Seattle Times set out to examine how that effort has turned out. Despite the zoo industry's insistence otherwise, by almost any measure, it has failed.

Does this say something negative about zoos? Animal husbandry, and certainly propagation of a species, is a complicated science. When you take on any difficult task, success is not always guaranteed. There are bound to be "failures." I wouldn’t be surprised if zoos did "mislead" the public into thinking the elephant breeding programs were a swimming success, as Berens complains.

I believe this simply because such issues are complex, and, as they are doing now, the general public may take such news the wrong way. I have observed many cases of successful animal husbandry and, in other cases, not so great. When you have long-lived animals like elephants and factor in that they do not breed profusely like other animals, the challenge of analyzing whether things are going in the right direction over the long term is difficult.

Elephants are unique from other animals in captivity because they have strong social bonds, advanced intelligence, and a heavier requirement for space to maintain proper physical health. Hence, the issues with captive elephant births in zoos are a problem that probably are a by-product of inadequate past standards. But the situation is still in an evolutionary process.

Elephants in the wild

Elephants in the wild

What Are Sanctuaries?

There are misconceptions about the term "sanctuary," which does not always mean sprawling hills and open space for captive animals. The word sanctuary is often used interchangeably among many animal-holding facilities: zoos, private owners, and breeding facilities alike.

All sanctuaries are technically defined as zoos; however, the “sanctuaries” as described in Berens’ article, are spacious (hundreds of acres), retirement facilities for elephants (and other animals) that have lived in zoos, circuses, and other captive environments. They hold anti-breeding, anti-captivity stances and believe that the remaining captive animals can only happily exist in large, naturalistic settings. However, make no mistake that such an existence is still captivity.

Berens’ position becomes clearer in "part two" ("Elephant Havens Face Zoo-industry Backlash") of his reporting. It seems as though he’s attempting to inspire a knee-jerk reaction from the uninformed public to stop attending zoos, as he suggests that they are merely an entertainment powerhouse, akin to circuses, that villainously compromise the welfare of the animals in their care.

In this part, he describes the AZA’s dissatisfaction with animal "sanctuaries," of which two that accept retired zoo elephants exist: The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (P.A.W.S.).

Elephant Deaths Since the 1960s

The Seattle Times' series boasts a wealth of information that was meticulously gathered, and featured on the website's page is an interactive map showing the locations where elephants have died in AZA-accredited zoos since the 1960s. I suppose this was an attempt to shock the viewer, given that there have been many elephant deaths in most U.S. states, and this is clearly expressed on the map. Yet I found this map to be a helpful tool and entered the numbers and information into an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the ages of the animals listed.

However, I only entered information from the last 10 to 20 years and separated these two ranges, as animal care tends to largely improve per decade. While I'm still assessing my results, I have discovered that:

  • The map is supposed to contain data about elephants that have died from the 1960s to 2012, but strangely the feature erroneously lists at least four elephants that I've found to have died in the early 1900s and late 1800s (I noticed this because I calculated their ages to be over 100, which is too old even for elephants). Two examples:

    “Gold Dust” (National Zoo). Listed as 1880 to 1998 (actually 1873 to 1898, 25 years)

    “Cleo” (Atlanta Zoo). Listed as 1885 to 2005 (actually 1885 to 1902, 17 years)
  • There has been an estimated 185 elephant deaths in AZA zoos since the 1960s, according to this data.
  • The median lifespan of these numbers is 27, with the age of stillbirths (0 years) included.
  • The median lifespan of these numbers, excluding stillbirths, is 33.
  • There were 35 stillbirths (35/185), which equates to 19% of the data.
  • The elephant herpes virus was responsible for 11/27 (40%) of the deaths of elephants that died under the age of 10.
  • 96 elephants out of the total that have died lived 30+ years (95/185) (51%) (185 includes stillbirths)
  • 59 elephants out of the total that have died lived 40+ years (59/185) (32%)
  • The median of the elephants' ages at death in 1992 to 2002, without including the numbers for stillbirths/early infant death, is approximately 27 years.
  • The median of the elephant's ages when they died between 2003 and 2012, without including the numbers of stillbirths/early infant death, is approximately 43 years.

(All figures give or take any potential errors I could have made, as I clicked through the values on the map and had to re-add Hawaii, which wasn't displayed.)

(Some of the elephants' causes of death were listed as "unknown." It is possible that such animals were relocated to other facilities and may still be living.)

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I analyzed the ages without the stillbirth "ages" (0 years) because I don't consider this to be directly husbandry-related, for the most part. The rearing of adult animals and infants offer different challenges, with the care of young being more difficult and requiring more research. The elephant herpes virus, which supposedly also exists in the wild, may also take the lives of previously healthy elephants.

As of yet, I haven't examined the numbers and condition of elephants that have survived compared to those that haven't.

I found it important to address that this map does not only list elephants that have died prematurely and that around half of them were at least considered to be middle-aged. Some of the premature elephant deaths were due to "accidents," such as being killed by another elephant or falling.

The medians that I calculated for the adult-aged elephants appeared to show that their overall lifespans increased in 2012 vs. in 2002. While there may be other variables, including the differences in population of the animals, when or if they were caught from the wild (the average age for wild capture is three to four years), and where they had spent the majority of their existence, I still find it plausible that the elephants of today stand a far better chance with the modern and improved zoo elephant husbandry standards that are rapidly being implemented.

Studies that assess the lifespan of elephants in captivity are disadvantaged from the small sample sizes of zoo elephants and the difference in care per decade, while animals from these earlier decades could retain harm from outdated husbandry methods and die earlier. I estimate that it would take at least around 20 more years to properly assess whether or not significant improvement is occurring with zoo elephants in the case of longevity. Either way, many individual facilities are having successes (with quality of life for elephants and reproduction) that are not mentioned.

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Why Does the AZA Oppose Sanctuaries?

This might be a bit of a stretch, but first and foremost, zoos might not appreciate that sanctuaries have an anti-zoo stance. Yes, it’s true—zoos have a "mission" to propagate their animals in captivity and do, in fact, support breeding, while sanctuaries like P.A.W.S do not.

In addition to having a pro-continuing existence stance for captive animal populations, zoos also hold the belief that allowing people to see animals is paramount toward a continued appreciation for them with members of the public. Zoos believe that pictures in a textbook and nature documentaries (which I consider to be mostly unpleasant "animal snuff films") are not comparable to seeing a living animal in the flesh.

Consider that at P.A.W.S attendance by the public is only allowed five times a year and only available to well-off donators at a high expense. At this point, I commend sanctuaries like the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary for incorporating large housing for its carnivores while still allowing the public to see the animals while not in the least bit jeopardizing their welfare. Simple common sense standards exist to allow animals to be viewed without causing them distress.

"Sanctuaries" also rarely contribute to research and education. I, for one, would love to see studies done that measure the stress levels of animals in sanctuaries vs. traditional zoos. Sanctuaries also often depend on zoos for their advances in veterinary care methods. I believe that learning to care for these animals is an extremely valuable resource that some species may eventually need.

Often also misunderstood is that breeding and rearing for female elephants can actually provide significant enrichment.

Wild elephant in Tanzania

Wild elephant in Tanzania

“Elephants Are Not Designed for Captivity”

This is a quote spoken by Pat Derby (P.A.W.S.) in the incriminating "Glamour Beasts" video. Yet again, I have the same confusion about this situation that I have emphasized about the popular sanctuary for exotic felines, Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida, and their supposed belief that big cats do not belong in cages.

Clearly, while living in cages, BCR’s own feline residents appear to be living a very reasonable existence, one that I would argue is superior to the wild and the inevitable premature death that such a life would offer once these animals reach a certain age. Derby’s elephants are not in cages per se, but they are in captivity, and the zoos that are being demonized are taking steps to improve the husbandry of their elephants.

The article lauds the success of elephants at P.A.W.S. and some individuals' recovery from illness when they enter the sanctuary. If the elephants can improve their health in a captive situation (from a bad one), more evidence is required to support the belief that all captivity is terrible for them.

As was briefly mentioned by Berens, some zoos have ended their elephant exhibits. This is happening for a handful of reasons: with the current knowledge that elephants have an immense need for ample room to roam on appropriate substrates and for exercise, most traditional zoos are either too small to accommodate these changes outdoors or, as many locations have harsh winters, it is not economically feasible to accommodate this need in small barns, or to construct appropriately-sized barns. There is also the issue of providing a healthy social structure for the animals. Zoos are now changing to accommodate large family groups.

Elephants in Chiang Mai

Elephants in Chiang Mai

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Why Zoos Should Continue

I often find myself in the position of "defending the indefensible." It is always a simple solution to simply "phase out" any situation that unintentionally results in harm. These days, it seems that people have a difficult time understanding that humans do use animals for their own benefit and even for sustenance. Given this fact, I have difficulty understanding why, when it comes to simply caring for and allowing people to see animals, particularly those that are not domesticated, that people then strongly object to such on moral grounds, despite the benefits to both species involved.

There may be a "dark side" to captivity just as there is a dark side to the wild. With a continued progression toward examining ways to humanely maintain elephants in captivity so that people can also see and understand them, the modern zoo can be a symbiotic relationship between humans and non-humans. If this means relinquishing elephants from "traditional" zoos in northern climates and from those with too little space, so be it. I anticipate the results of these changes that are taking place with the hope of success for the improved welfare of these animals.

Perhaps Derby, with the unparalleled luxury of being able to view these fascinating animals on a daily basis, may lose sight of the profound experiences that would be denied to future generations of children and adults alike.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.