Is an elephant-free zoo desirable, or even possible?

A dark confession was contained in the opening sentence of my last blog, where I said, “Unlike some of my respected colleagues and friends I don’t automatically and irrevocably oppose zoos, or to be more accurate, I think there can be grounds for keeping animals captive that can be defended on moral, conservation and educational grounds."

OK, for most of the public that’s not much of a confession nor very dark, but within the animal protection community there is huge irritation over zoos. Those who care to look, to study zoos, can easily become frustrated at how much harm zoos cause to animals, while contributing to the generally accepted social concepts of human “dominion” over animals. To some, suggesting there is anything about zoos that is, or can be, positive is an anathema.

But the problem lies, perhaps, in the concept of “zoo.” A zoo is usually more or less perceived by most people as a source of entertainment that takes various species of wild animals — who people might rarely or never see in their natural environments — and puts them on display in some form of confinement. In the case of elephants, as discussed in my previous blog, this is very much to the detriment of the animals. Not wanting to admit the paucity of moral justification of hurting animals in order to entertain (or profit), zoos have mounted an effective but mostly specious campaign to convince us that zoos serve higher functions. Primarily, it is claimed, zoos significantly assist the conservation of endangered species and educate the public.

Oh? There have been instances of captive breeding in zoos and elsewhere contributing to conservation by producing animals who are subsequently released to the wild. But that is not done with elephants, nor would it assist their survival. Elephants breed perfectly well in the wild, thank you. What they need is protection from poaching and various forms of encroachment and habitat loss. Those needs are not provided by the Toronto Zoo, nor at any other zoo.

Education? Last year my colleagues at Zoocheck Canada conducted a study at Toronto Zoo. They found that visitors spend an average of 117 seconds, less than two minutes, looking at the elephants. A similar study at the Chester Zoo in the United Kingdom produced similar results. And in Toronto, less than 1 percent of visitors read the signs that provide information about elephants.

But here’s the good news. The Toronto Zoo could, by extricating itself from 19th century thinking, educate children and adult visitors about elephants at much less cost than the proposed expansion of the current elephant display, and do so without hurting elephants! What is being proposed is use of modern technology to produce an educational center.

It’s fun just thinking about such a concept. Imagine, for example, a simulated patch of elephant habitat where kids could literally feel the low-decibel, sub-audio rumbling by which elephants communicate. Imagine a model of elephant dung that kids could search, as elephant biologists do with the real thing, for clues as to diet and internal parasites. Imagine a life-size model of an elephant, intact on one side and cut away on the other to show organs and organ systems that could be illuminated with the touch of a button. Imagine wrap-around screens that put the viewer in the midst of a heard of African elephants with the kind of natural groupings and behavior never seen in zoos. Imagine a holograph that changes between the two species of African elephant and then changes into an Asian elephant. Imagine a succession of life-size animated models of prehistoric elephant species and a mammoth tusk you can touch. Imagine a display of one day’s consumption by an elephant. Imagine being able to cue recordings of various elephant vocalizations with an explanation of what they mean. Imagine an interactive map of Africa and Asia where you could push buttons that are numbered to different years, with each year’s button lighting up the parts of the map occupied by elephants during that year, to show the steady decline of elephants. Imagine a real, live African wildlife ranger in uniform brought to Toronto to talk about his adventures protecting elephants from poachers. Imagine displays of confiscated ivory figurines.

Imagine ... well, that’s the point: What’s needed, all that is needed, is imagination — that and compassion, and a financial commitment more in keeping with the ideals of fiscal responsibility so strongly preached by the politicians.

Right now Toronto Zoo has an unequalled opportunity to seriously educate the public about African elephants and thereby encourage donations to real conservation efforts. Is it up to the challenge?

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA