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Free Elephants From Zoos

Updated on October 6, 2014

Elephants Suffer in Captivity

Day after day, the zoo-going public stops for a brief look at the elephant, unaware of the secret suffering these magnificent creatures endure.
Can a zoo adequately meet the needs of these thoughtful and sensitive animals? Can an elephant thrive in a tiny concrete space away from its family and social structure, unable to roam? The answer is a resounding NO.
Elephants should be freed from captivity. It's time for everyone everywhere to wake up to the plight of the elephant held captive at zoo's worldwide. Its time to close elephant exhibits and make some positive change in the world.

Elephants are deprived of what they need in captivity

Almost all captive elephants were taken from the wild, even though wild populations are still dwindling. Once taken from their native habitat, elephants are deprived of the social companionship they need. Elephants live in matriarchal herds, protect one another, forage for fresh vegetation, play, bathe in rivers, share mothering responsibilities, and feel joy, sorrow and happiness just like we do. Zoos often move elephants from one facility to the next with complete disregard for these special bonds and friendships that are shared between them. Elephants display psychological stress symptoms as a result (when they repeatedly sway, pace and head bob).

In the wild elephants are active for 18 hours each day and walk up to 40 miles. No matter how well intentioned a zoo may be, it simply cannot provide the space elephants need physically or socially. As a result, elephants suffer from long hours of standing on hard surfaces and lack of exercise. This contributes to foot infections and arthritis, the leading causes of death among captive elephants.

Elephants in zoos have significantly shorter lifespans than their wild counterparts. The lives of elephants in zoos typically are far shorter than their 70-year life expectancy. More than half of the 66 elephants who have died at AZA-accredited facilities since 2000 never even reached the age of 40.

Captive Breeding Programs Do Not Work

Zoos operate under a veil of conservation, and a few species, whose numbers have been dwindling in the wild, have recovered somewhat from a captive breeding program. This is not the case however, with elephants. Captive breeding will never contribute to the survival of the species because elephants breed poorly in captivity and the offspring who do survive can never be released into the wild.

"Confining elephants in zoos causes them to suffer and die prematurely," says Suzanne Roy, program director for In Defense of Animals. "Elephants in zoos repeatedly have stillbirths and experts we've talked to believe that the lack of exercise and physical fitness contribute to their inability to have successful pregnancies."

In Africa, a basic family unit consists of six to twelve animals, but families of twelve to twenty elephants are quite common

Many Zoos Around The World Have Exhibits Like This One

A tiny concrete enclosure like the one shown here from the Oregon zoo or an obsolete exhibit exemplified by the Barcelona Zoo, home to lonely Susi, who has spent her life standing on concrete under the hot Spanish sun, or in her 24 sq.m basement stall. With no companions, nothing to do and nowhere to go, listless Susi was losing weight and covered in calluses from lying on concrete.

Under pressure, the zoo brought in female, Yoyo, housing the two in the underground bunker while they dug up the concrete and increased the exhibit from a pathetic 1,000 sq.m to meagre 1,600 sq.m.

Many other elephants are living like Suzi in zoos around the world. They are supposedly there to educate us - but what we see are exhibits of animal abuse.

Different zoos like this one are highlighted here:

Short video clips of stereotypical Stress Related Behaviors Displayed by Animals Held in Captivity.

Hear Lucys Story - And help to save her

In January 2007, elephant biologist Winnie Kiiru identified the Edmonton Valley Zoo as the worst zoo in Canada for elephants. The zoo's African elephant, Samantha, had the good fortune to be transferred to a more appropriate facility. More than a year later, however, a 33-year-old Asian elephant named Lucy remains alone and ailing.

Lucy's current situation is a miserable contrast to what she would experience in the wild. Edmonton's frigid winter weather and the zoo's policy of locking Lucy inside when the zoo is closed means that Lucy spends the majority of her time in a small barn. When she is allowed outside, she is restricted to an enclosure that is less than an acre in size. As is common with captive elephants, Lucy exhibits signs of psychological distress, and her medical records reveal that she has been suffering from arthritis as well as chronic foot and respiratory problems.

Although the Province of Alberta's Zoo Regulations state that animals must be kept in appropriate social groupings, authorities have been unwilling to enforce the law for Lucy because the zoo has told them that she is too sick to be moved. But the zoo also claims that Lucy's health conditions are under control and that she is fine where she is-two contradictory claims. Animal protection organizations are asking city officials to allow a veterinarian from a sanctuary to examine Lucy and provide any necessary care so that she can be safely moved to a sanctuary.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee can offer Lucy hundreds of acres of natural habitat, ponds for bathing, fresh vegetation and foraging opportunities, and the company of many other elephants. After living 29 years at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, retiring Lucy to a sanctuary is the least that she deserves.

What You Can Do

Please urge the Edmonton mayor and city council to do whatever is necessary to move Lucy to a sanctuary and permanently close the zoo's elephant exhibit. Please send polite comments to:

Mayor Stephen Mandel and the Edmonton City Council

City of Edmonton

City Hall, Second Floor

1 Sir Winston Churchill Sq.

Edmonton, AB

T5J 2R7



780-496-8292 (fax)

One Of My All Time Favorite Books

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

This incredibly hearwarming true story will make you smile, and it will make you cry. It will take you on an amazing journey of love and companionship between a boy and his best friend, an elephant. I LOVE THIS BOOK and you will too.


Top 10 Worst Zoos In The United States

Just Published

This list, just published by In Defense of Animals issues its Top Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants list annually. IDA is an international animal rescue and advocacy organization based in San Rafael, CA. For more information, visit

1. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Vallejo, Calif.) - Discovering the cruelty. For the fourth consecutive year, Six Flags lands on the list thanks to its history of terrible elephant care and disregard for the health and well-being of seven elephants forced to live in the shadow of roller coaster rides, amidst noisy, rowdy crowds. Nine elephants have died at the amusement park since 1995, including five elephants who were euthanized as a direct result of the same foot and joint disorders that afflict at least two elephants currently, painful ailments caused by the elephants' cramped and barren exhibit. An IDA investigation revealed that elephants with diseased feet and joints are forced to stack 600-pound logs and perform in shows for the public, despite their afflictions. To force the elephants to perform and give rides, Six Flags coercively controls elephants through force and physical punishment with a bullhook, a device similar to a fireplace poker that keepers use to poke, prod and stab the elephants into compliance.

2. Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, Wash.) - Putting zoo profits ahead of elephant health and welfare. This zoo, on the list for the third time, made headlines in 2007 after six-year old Hansa suddenly died from the elephant herpesvirus. Despite the fact that so little is known about the highly fatal disease and its transmission, the Zoo recently artificially inseminated Hansa's mother, Chai, placing any offspring at high risk of contracting and dying from this terrible disease that causes massive internal hemorrhaging and kills almost every elephant afflicted. Chai may have been exposed to the deadly virus when she was sent to Dickerson Park Zoo for breeding. (She conceived Hansa there.) Five elephants at Dickerson have been stricken with the virus; four died. The Woodland Park Zoo's actions show that it apparently values the increased revenue that a baby elephant produces over the lives of highly endangered Asian elephants.

3. El Paso Zoo (Tex.) - In 2006, this zoo admitted its three-quarter acre elephant exhibit was too small and the city council formed a committee to explore expansion options. In 2007, newly-hired zoo director Steve Marshall convinced the city that the very same exhibit was acceptable. He cited the AZA's pitifully minimal standards that allow elephants to be kept in an outdoor space about the size of a three-car garage and an indoor pen measuring only 20 feet by 20 feet. By accepting Marshall's recommendation to essentially do nothing, the council guaranteed a never-ending cycle of elephant suffering, with elephants being held in woefully inadequate conditions until they die and are replaced like worn out appliances.

4. Oregon Zoo (Portland, Ore.) - Too little too late. The Oregon Zoo has long touted its "successful" elephant breeding program, though it fails to mention that more than half of the calves born did not survive to adulthood, young calves were cruelly separated from their mothers when relocated to other facilities (including circuses), and breeding-age females have been disabled by foot disease and arthritis, with many dying during their prime.

5. Buffalo Zoo (NY) - What could be worse than holding three Asian elephants in a 1912-era elephant house that gives the elephants less than 1,200 square feet of indoor space in which to spend their the majority of their lives? The answer: Wasting over $1 million on a token renovation that will add a miserly 600 square feet of space for the elephants. This ensures the elephants will continue to be held in too-small pens throughout Buffalo's long and frigid winter, where the elephants are forced to stand and lay on concrete floors in their own feces and urine for prolonged periods, enduring conditions that can destroy elephants' feet and joints. In addition, the Buffalo Zoo reportedly chains the elephants overnight, a cruel practice that seriously impacts their health and well-being.

6. Dickerson Park Zoo (Mo.) -Dickerson Park Zoo has a terrible history with elephants. Of 10 elephants born at the Zoo, only two are alive today. But it's the five calves who were infected with the highly fatal elephant herpesvirus that makes this zoo a real hot spot for the disease, with all but one dying from the virus. Despite the deaths, which first began in 1991, the Zoo continued its breeding program until just recently, often transporting female elephants in and out from other zoos and circuses, and potentially spreading the disease widely.

7.TIE: Los Angeles Zoo (Calif.)/San Antonio Zoo (Tex.) - One is the loneliest number. These zoos share a place on the list because of the similar plight of two solitary elephants and the callous disregard for their welfare. Visitors at Los Angeles Zoo, adults and children alike, comment on the sad, repetitive behavior of the Zoo's lone elephant, Billy, as he incessantly bobs his head up and down, day in and day out, a pitiable display in response to his lonely and unnatural existence. Elephants do not naturally live in isolation and require social interaction with other elephants, yet Billy has been alone for more than three years. Turning a blind eye to his suffering, the L.A. Zoo is instead focused on an outrageously expensive - and taxpayer-funded - $40 million elephant exhibit renovation that will take almost two years to complete, and will only provide 3.5 acres, subdivided into four yards, for the earth's largest land mammals.

Following the death of Alport last November at San Antonio Zoo, the surviving female elephant, the misnamed Lucky, now lives in solitary confinement, a condition that is particularly cruel for this intensely social species. Free-ranging elephants live in large matriarchal family groups, with relationships extending to the larger population, encompassing hundreds of individuals; females remain with the herd for life.

8. St. Louis Zoo (Mo.) - The dysfunctional life of elephants in zoos was graphically illustrated at St. Louis Zoo, making its third consecutive appearance on the annual list. Clara was euthanized at age 54, after suffering for years from crippling arthritis and chronic foot disease, the result of decades spent in the Zoo's tiny exhibit. Elephants giving birth at St. Louis are routinely isolated and chained during labor and delivery, conditions so adverse and unnatural that tragedies are bound to occur. Intense confinement to a half-acre or less of outdoor space and long stretches behind locked doors in concrete stalls at night and 24/7 during cold Midwest winter days. Nature never intended elephants to live like this.

9. Disney's Animal Kingdom (Fla.)/Riverbanks Zoo (So. Carolina) - Nothing magical about this elephant swap. Dumbo may have flown away, but the elephants at Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom are stuck there, that is until the park decides to dump them because they can no longer breed. In October, Disney trucked Robin and Petunia to Riverbanks Zoo in exchange for Tumpe, a younger elephant whom Disney wants to breed. Although only in their mid-30s, Robin and Petunia suffer from early infertility, a condition that plagues female elephants in zoos. (Wild elephants can reproduce into their 50s and sometimes 60s.)

Transferring elephants between zoos is a dubious yet common practice that destroys social stability and often lands elephants in dysfunctional social groups where aggression is a problem. Robin and Petunia may face the latter at Riverbanks, which has a history of serious aggression between its elephants. For Tumpe, life won't be so magical either. At Disney, where illusion reigns, the elephants spend the majority of their lives in small, behind-the-scenes paddocks and not the lush-looking "habitats" seen by visitors.

10. Maryland Zoo (Baltimore, Md.) - In December, the Zoo brought in two elephants, a male and a female, claiming to create a "breeding group." The Zoo is making minor renovations to squeeze the pair into already tight quarters, obviously banking on a baby elephant to boost attendance and generate revenue. IDA again predicts that the elephants will suffer from the Zoo's outrageously poor planning.

Interesting Article on Elephant Cognition

Taken from Elephant Voices (see link below)

Scientists are learning more and more about elephant intelligence. A new study, released online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows elephants are more perceptive than previously believed.

Researchers at the Bronx Zoo in New York City found that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, suggesting that they possess a degree of self-awareness that was, until now, credited only to humans, apes and dolphins.

They are among a handful of species to use tools, says scientist Joyce Poole, a renowned elephant expert who has studied the animals at Amboseli National Park in Kenya for more than 30 years. Captive elephants have piled tires into step stools to reach high branches. Elephants even have used logs to short out electric fences. Elephants communicate through a variety of calls -- some of which are inaudible to humans -- and chemical signals, Poole says. Elephants have been known to mimic the calls of other elephants, as well as the sounds of machinery and their keepers' voices.

They also have sophisticated societies, typically led by an older matriarch. Daughters stay with their mothers their entire lives and typically serve as babysitters for younger siblings, Poole says. Researchers have observed them trying to help sick elephants get back on their feet, she says. Like humans, elephants even appear to experience emotional trauma -- such as the massacre of parents by poachers or others, says psychologist Gay Bradshaw at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. In a paper in Nature last year, Bradshaw wrote that elephants display the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

And while some trauma victims never fully recover, with the right care and support, some elephants are able to heal, Bradshaw says. "Elephants have a capacity to forgive, to reach out even to humans who have been the source of a lot of their pain," she says. "It's our own prejudice not to see it."

Elephant Emotion

You can help alleviate the suffering of elephants in captivity simply by writing a letter. Please go to this page:

to learn what you can do to help.

Touching and Informative Reading on these Magnificent Creatures

There Is Hope

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and other conservation organizations nationwide are urging the United States to follow the progressive lead of the United Kingdom, where four facilities have already closed their elephant exhibits.

In May 2004, Michigan's Detroit Zoo was the first to permanently close its elephant exhibit and retire two female Asian elephants, Winky and Wanda, to a sanctuary. Other zoos such as those listed below have begun to follow suit and stop exhibiting elephants.

Philadelphia Zoo (Pennsylvania) (2007)

Gladys Porter Zoo (Texas) (2006)

Lion Country Safari (Florida) (2006)

Santa Barbara Zoo (California) (2006)

Bronx Zoo (New York) (2006)

Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago) (2005)

San Francisco Zoo (California) (2004)

Chehaw Wild Animal Park (Georgia) (2004)

There are two distinct species of elephants: the African elephant (genus: Loxodonta) and the Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). There are a number of differences between the two species – overall size, ear size, tusks and shape of the back and forehead among others.

photo sources for this page: zoo1 sad baby zoo2

A female African Bush Elephant at the Roger Williams Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island wikimedia commons

Thanks for Visiting - I would love to hear from you!

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    • AnnRadley profile image


      5 years ago

      Thank you so much for this brilliant and informative lens. I have been working to promote the release of the elephants at the Oregon Zoo (Number 4 on your list of the 10 worst zoos in the USA). Your efforts to help more people understand how intelligent these animals are and how much they suffer in zoos (and the entertainment industry) are so important and will make a difference!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great information

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Elephants and any other kind of animal in Canada should be freed from zoos, circuses, etc. It is animal cruelty to the max!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Let elephants roam free as they should. Being confined to a Zoo is cruel and inhumane!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      It is so sad to se such large animals captive.

      Nice Lens

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Zoos are not much fun and perhaps they are not needed anymore. It is much more interesting and pleasurable to watch televised shows of animals living free in nature.

      Modoc was a great read.

      Many stars for your great work and caring!

    • wilddove6 profile image


      9 years ago

      Beautiful lens on such a sad, sad topic.

      The Vancouver "zoo", which is really a privately owned facility, was going to sell their elephant, who was suffering severe leg issues to another zoo. People rallied to get her sent to the sanctuary in Tennessee, and eventually, the zoo agreed...but it was too late.

      It is heartbreaking how we treat these incredibly social and intelligent animals.

      Thank you for doing such a great job on the issue.

      Five stars!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      This is a remarkable lens.

      You've done very well with writing on the topic,

      and the pictures are very good.

      Blessed by an angel!


    • profile image

      Leanne Chesser 

      9 years ago

      This is a really well done lens. I care deeply about the ethical treatment of elephants and their freedom from zoos and other forms of captivity. Returning your lenroll to my Elephant Poo Poo Paper lens.

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      9 years ago from United States

      It is truly heartbreaking!

      I did not know about the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Totally awesome!

    • LoKackl profile image


      9 years ago

      Wonderfully done! Heartbreaking to be sure and I hope your lens leads to some action on their behalf. I will surely do the letter! 5*/fav/roll to

    • ZenandChic profile image


      9 years ago

      Wow! I did not know all of this about elephants. Great lens and thanks for writing about this.

    • Laniann profile image


      9 years ago

      It breaks your heart reading about the cruel and unjust treatment man inflects upon animals. All animals have feelings and we need to change our behavior to all living creatures. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. 5*s

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      So worthy of a blessing by a passing Angel :) and, of course, 5*!

    • theherbivorehip profile image


      9 years ago

      Beautiful yet heartbreaking lens. I'm glad to see someone shares my opinion! You can look in the eyes of these elephants and they look so incredibly sad! I'm lensrolling this to my zoos are cruel for sure!


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