Animal Rescue: How to Exercise Your Elephant and Repopulate the Species

Strong Legs

This Holiday Season I've heard quite a lot of news from Jody's Jungle, an Elephant and animal welfare web site that is very good and updated often. The pages and several links at have provided elephant and other animal anti-abuse news and photos since 1997. It is here that I first learned of Motala, one of the elephants working in Thailand in the logging industry and injured by a land mine.

Motala underwent extensive treatment and therapy in the 1990s-2000s and received a new prosthetic leg in January 2010. She seems quite happy with it. If you visit the site above, you'll first see a new prosthetic leg on a baby elephant Mosha that looks very much like a real leg.

Elephants in captivity need to exercise, and Motala's new leg makes this easier for her to handle.Recent news articles have reported that elephants in captivity often live less than half the lifespan of an elephant in the wilds of Africa of India, because of stress and lack of exercise. Like humans, they need both exercise and a reduction of stress in their lives.

Human and Elephant skeletal frames, drawn in 1860 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
Human and Elephant skeletal frames, drawn in 1860 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

Living Conditions

A news item in the Guardian in the UK on December 14, 2008 (Stress and lack of exercise are killing elephants, zoos warned) related that numerous elephant deaths in captivity are likely related to obesity, because they are well fed but exercised little. They live in rather small enclosures as well. High stress levels are also likely to blame, because elephants suffer in transferring between zoos and/or because babies are separated from mothers.

We hear of elephants living for 40-60 years or longer, but the Guardian reported that the average age in Africa was about 39 years and in captivity, a bit less than 17, with Asian figures a year or two higher.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK found that 71 out of 71 elephants in 13 UK zoos were obese and only 11 could walk properly. Other health risk factors were also found to be connected with captivity.

An adult elephant in a small enclosure much be very much like a beef calf penned in a tiny crate for the production of veal. Overall, it is unhealthy for the animal, reducing circulation, possibly raising blood pressure and stress hormone levels, and creating behavioral problems.

Green open places provide running room for elephants.
Green open places provide running room for elephants. | Source

American Captivity

Some American captivity is no better than that found be the Guardian, and protest groups line up across from many of the circuses that still operate in the US. Other protest at zoological installations. Despite the efforts of notables like Steve and Terry Irwin and family, Jack Hanna and his family,  Joan Embry of the San Diego Zoo, and the staff past and present of Wild Kingdom, much of the American public remains opposed to captivity for elephants and other animals. At the same time, America offers a few very good elephant refuges.

Transport can be cramped and stressful.
Transport can be cramped and stressful.

US National Zoo Elephant Community Center

Smithsonian National Zoological Park

The National Zoo recognizes the need for exercise among elephants and the rest of its animal residents. For elephants, the zoo promotes a special project to provide more room and exercise for each animal. It is called Elephant Trek, targets the Asian elephants in the zoo and oversees a system of elephant trails that are the first of their kind in captivity globally.

The Elephant Trek is a woodlands hiking trail for the elephants that is built to look and function like their homeland. Elephants can walk, run, forage, bathe, and behave like elephants in Asia. As of January 2010, the National Zoo stated that they need $500,000 to complete the environment. Indoor space is also being expanded to 500% of current square footage.

Learn more about what the National Zoo is doing for Asian Elephants in the Elephant Trek, complete with progress photos at Elephant Trails: A Campaign to Save Asian Elephants.

For a Rudyard Kipling story from the Jungle Books about young elephant herder Toomai and his late night dance with all the elephants, read Toomai of the Elephants.

The Elephant Dictionary

Elephant Stretches

Good news from the UK comes in the from of a report from theTelegraph on November 7 2009 (Elephant does maternity exercises) that a 20-year-old elephant in Munich is being trained to do stretching exercises in order to preparer her for her upcoming delivery of a new baby elephant after a 22-month pregnancy.

Another form of exercise is used at the San Diego Zoo - the staff Rototills the elephant grounds so that the landscape is more challenging for walking, thus providing exercise. It's described as like walking in deep sand and having done that myself many times for exercise, I think it's pretty effective, San Diego also provides early morning elephant walking for 30 minutes for elephants that are willing to do it.

Elephants can use what is in their environment to make exericise a natural part of their daily lives, much like humans. Equipment is not always necessary.

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Comments and Observations 11 comments

dusanotes profile image

dusanotes 6 years ago from Windermere, FL

A most interesting Hub. Elephants are like humans, then. They get fat from non-exercise. I'm going to start exercising every day. I feel better doing so. I'm sure the elephants have feelings. They feel better if they can eat a small forest of overhanging trees per day, but they travel great distances annually so they are walking or running almost daily. Nice Hub. Don White

Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

Thanks for bringing this to peoples' attention. My husband and I adore elephants and have been so pleased when we've been in India to see them so well treated.We didn't know what to expect in a 3rd world country. These animals are magnificant and HUGE. ! They need space. Great hub. Thanks again x

RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada

Patty, this is such a great Hub. I didn't think that elephants were particularly happy in captivity, but I had no idea the statistics on their longevity were so dreadful. At least it's reassuring to read that some of the zoos are trying to do something to improve their health.

PastorAndrew profile image

PastorAndrew 6 years ago from Detroit

Every interesting hub. I never expected that we could do a prosthetic for an elephant. That's great.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Hi Don - I wish you success in exercise. I like to hike through snow, myself and we have plenty of it right now. It takes less time to walk to the coffee shop and grocery in the snow than melt and scrape the ice on the car!

Dim - India and Thailand seem to have much respect for the condition of elephants, Thailand having Elepahnt hospitals.

RedElf - When it's complete, Elephant Trek will be my reason to visit DC and the National Zoo again.

PastorAndrew - It's amazing. The people of Thailand even took up a collection for Motala.

The Rope profile image

The Rope 6 years ago from SE US

I love Thailand and their elephants! The whole country is amazingly hospitable to every one. They truly care about their residents - of all types. Thanks for a great read.

RNMSN profile image

RNMSN 6 years ago from Tucson, Az

wonderful hub as usual Patty!! I agree with you, when I finally see DC that will be the main item on my "tour" :) love to you

ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Happy new year Patty! You really come up with the most interesting of topics! I enjoyed this one since our family just came from Thailand and we saw live elephants there. LOL

Money Glitch profile image

Money Glitch 6 years ago from Texas

This is a great hub, elephants are such fascinating creatures. I saw the 60 minute interview that you are showing in the video; it is easy to see how this lady has dedicated her life to becoming familiar with this breed and their language. Thanks for sharing!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia

Enjoyed this! Elephants have always fascinated me. I hate that so many are mistreated.

Clare 6 years ago

Elephants ! - I though they were fat becauase of a lack of exercise ;)

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