Elephant Captivity - Realities and Challenges

Elephants in zoos don't have to cope with the challenges of the wild, such as predation, drought, being shot by poachers for their ivory or meat or dying in human-elephant conflict situations. But they do face a variety of other challenges that they have no natural mechanism to cope with, such lack of space, standing on hard ground surfaces, inactivity, abnormal social situations and captivity-associated stress. So, despite being provided with shelter, veterinary care and the attention of professional keepers, elephants in zoos routinely deal with problematic health issues, such as: 

Elephant Well-being and Climate

The fact that zoo elephants are plagued by a host of physical and psychological ailments that are not observed among their free-living counterparts is well established. In addition to the usual assortment of challenges inherent in the housing and care of any large, intelligent, wide-ranging animal in captivity, many problems (e.g., inactivity, boredom, frustration, standing on hard floor surfaces, obesity) are exacerbated in cold climates since elephants are confined indoors for a much greater percentage of time.
Comfortable temperatures, places to relax outdoors, opportunities for long walks, an abundance of different types of exercise, mud wallowing and swimming areas and pasture are critical facets of elephant enclosures and should be available on a year round basis.

Studies indicate that elephants have a limited ability to adapt to wide temperature ranges, as they are unable to insulate (add fat) or adjust to extremes in temperature. Elephants have evolved to live in temperate and tropical climates, and are at risk if subjected to consistently cold temperatures, as, once chilled, they are unable to gain sufficient heat to warm themselves, particularly their extremities.

Increased indoor confinement during cold weather periods is detrimental to elephants for a variety of reasons and not just for the dramatic reduction in space they experience. Elephants experience less exposure to sunlight and fresh air, foraging opportunities are drastically restricted or entirely eliminated, social interactions are disrupted, sometimes leading to frustration, aggression and the development of abnormal behaviours. Wild elephants spend up to 80% of their waking hours foraging. The deficit of foraging opportunities is thought to contribute to stereotypic behaviours (meaningless repetitive movements, such as rocking, swaying or pacing) in many species in captivity, including elephants.

Stereotypic behaviour occurs in 60% of zoo elephants and represents the strongest evidence that well-being is/has been compromised. The Toronto Zoo elephants have been observed stereotyping and the zoo has confirmed that it worsens when the animals are confined inside during the winter months. In fact, the Toronto Zoo has conducted a study of elephant stereotypic behaviour, listed on their website under behaviour research. In 2006, African elephant researcher, Winnie Kiiru, conducted an investigation of Canadian zoo elephants and found that elephants were stereotyping in most facilities in Canada, including the Toronto Zoo.

Unlike their ancestors (e.g., mammoths), modern day elephants have not evolved to survive in cold climates. The evidence of this natural selection in elephants includes adaptations such as skin coloured to absorb heat and the development of large ears to allow thermoregulation in temperatures up to 50 degrees C. In contrast, ancestral mammoths survived by evolving in ways that helped to save heat such as woolly coats, fat layers, and small ears and tails to protect them from the frigid conditions in their sub-zero habitat. Scientists have recently discovered that mammoths also had a form of antifreeze blood that kept their bodies supplied with oxygen in the sub-zero temperatures. The adaptation has also been found in modern day cold climate species, such as musk ox.

Most zoo industry associations recommend that elephants be monitored frequently at temperatures below 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C) and should be provided protection from cold, wind and precipitation. Toronto's winter, and that of most other Canadian cities, is characterized by cold temperatures and snow. 

Lack of Space Impacts Health

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) requires 1,800 sq ft (167 sq m) of outdoor space and an additional 400 sq ft (37 sq m) of indoor space for an adult elephant. According to world renowned elephant scientist Dr. Joyce Poole, it's not anywhere near enough:

"As a scientist who has studied elephant behaviour and communication among free-living individuals for 30 years, I am stunned that the AZA is not able to perceive the empirical evidence that elephants need much more space than what is currently allotted to them. In the form of routine problems captive elephant managers face every day, the evidence is unmistakable: foot diseases, arthritis, weight related diseases, infertility, heightened aggression, and other neurotic behavior. In the Amboseli population where the life histories of over 2,000 free-ranging individuals have been followed for 34 years, wild elephants do not develop foot problems (zero cases); they are not seen swaying rhythmically back and forth (zero incidents in over 34,000 sightings of groups containing 1-550 elephants); they do not have difficulties conceiving (two cases of infertility out of 558 females over 10 years old); they do not kill their own infants (zero cases out > 1500 births); they do not attack and kill the individuals with whom they are bonded (zero cases; unlike captive elephants who injure and kill their keepers). All these zero cases in the wild add up to an enormous amount of evidence that elephants need space to be elephants."

The Toronto Zoo outdoor elephant enclosure is less than one hectare in size and consists of two separate paddocks of earth. The indoor accommodation is substantially smaller. To view an Google Earth image of the Toronto Zoo's elephant enclosure, please click here.

Elephants require a vast amount of space in order to maintain their health. In the wild they can be active 20 hours per day. Their constant activity and movement exercises joints and ligaments, maintains muscle tone, burns fat, and ensures good blood flow. It also creates constant shifts in exposure to varying landscapes and consequent inevitable richness in experiences and visual change. Very few captive facilities in North America provide the hundreds of acres needed to keep elephants healthy. In addition there is little motivation for elephants to be active in small spaces that are devoid of stimulus to keep elephants active in their environment.

Alan Roocroft, a top zoo industry consultant who has worked with captive elephants for over 30 years and is considered an expert in captive elephant foot problems has said:

"Long periods of inactivity can and will be detrimental to the health and longevity of an elephant. To an animal that is programmed to move eighteen out of twenty-four hours, inactivity has a high price. Normally, the nail and foot tissue of an elephant is worn down during the long hours of walking over different substrates. Flexibility to wrist, knees and their joints is increased and maintained by the continuous
movement of their daily activities. Foot problems, if not caused by injury, trauma or arthritic conditions of joints, are the end product of inadequate  movement and activity. An elephant's foot will regenerate normally without elaborate pedicures, providing an exercise regime of mass movement and daily walks is sustained throughout the elephant's life. If an abscess  develops and the elephant is maintained in an inadequate care system, re-infection will occur until the infection has reached the toe digits and surgery is needed. Very few of these cases survive."

Lack of space also causes natural substrates (i.e., earth) to become hard-packed, as observed at the Toronto Zoo, because animals are walking over the same ground constantly. These hard substrates are boring, uncomfortable, can cause physical harm to elephants and lead to foot infections (the leading cause of death in zoo elephants) and can damage other tissue as well. Dr. Leslie Golden, physics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago explained how the damage is caused as follows:

"The damaging effects (of hard substrates) exceed the obvious orthopedic ones. The concussive effect is proportional    to the weight of the body. For massive animals such as the elephant, the effect is horrendous and is easily calculated.    It can amount to three times the weight of the body. For a 5-ton elephant, that is a force of 15 tons -- as if the weight of seven automobiles is slammed into the body. Mammal bodies are composed largely of water, an incompressible fluid. When that force hits the elephant's body, the concussion is transmitted through the legs, and upward through all organs of the body.

The cells of those organs are ruptured. This occurs notably among the delicate cells of the alveoli of the lungs. That is the source of the well-documented prevalence of deaths due to tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs, among captive elephants and other large mammals. As the many organs in the body necessary for digestion are also damaged, emaciation is also a common occurrence. Damage to brain tissues results in dementia. Ruptured capillaries results in internal bleeding and anemia. All result from the continual concussive effects of 3G (three times the force of gravity) deceleration. It is as if the elephant experiences hundreds of minor automobile accidents each day." 


Zoo Industry Standards Insufficient for Elephant Needs

Zoo industry standards tend to be rooted in the traditional zoo perspective of elephant keeping which, for the most part, follows an interventionist, medical management regime wherein problems are addressed only after they occur. None of the zoo industry standards are rooted in behaviour-based husbandry, in which the biology, behaviour and lifestyle of the animals themselves dictate the housing and management regime they are subjected to. A great deal has already been written about the deficiencies inherent in zoo industry standards for elephants which are generally dismissive of the need for large spaces, natural substrate, pasture, complexity, climate and, to a certain extent, proper social context.

According to Alan Roocroft, a top zoo industry elephant consultant, "The zoo industry standards for elephant enclosures are far too small to meet the animals' basic needs. The elephant's natural biology is virtually never a reference or benchmark used to guide captive care. The guidelines and standards we write set the bar so low that it has nothing in common with the elephant's long-term well-being, comfort and health in zoos".