By Stephen Messenger
It’s not easy being an elephant in captivity, denied the ability to roam freely or share in the companionship of creatures like themselves. But while confinement might inherently be painful, distressing and lonely — some elephants have it worse than others.
For the 11th year in a row, animal welfare group In Defense of Animals (IDA) has released its annual list of the “Ten Worst Zoos For Elephants“ — detailing the unseen suffering of pachyderms held captive across the United States.
1. Natural Bridge Zoo — Natural Bridge, Virginia
While the word “zoo” typically suggests a facility that places emphasis on education to justify their living exhibits, Natural Bridge Zoo uses the term to conceal what it really is — a roadside attraction.
For the last decade, Natural Bridge Zoo has been home to a African elephant named Asha, kept without the company of another like her. Worst of all, when she’s not seeking shelter from the sun in her spartan habitat, she is forced to give rides to guests for $6 a pop (“minimum of 2 persons per ride required”) under fear of her keeper’s bullhook.
An aerial view of Asha’s enclosure shows the sad path she’s made to trod day in and day out.
2. San Antonio Zoo — San Antonio, Texas
Little has changed since the San Antonio Zoo took the top slot as the worst zoo for elephants, despite the fact that officials there had the opportunity to improve. The zoo is home to a female ele named Lucky who, for the last few years, has lived all alone in her small enclosure since her only companion passed away.
"Sadly, this zoo isn’t fit for any elephants due to lack of space and its inexcusable decision to keep Lucky alone for the rest of her life, rather than send her to a more suitable facility where she would have room to roam and the companionship of other elephants,” writes IDA.
3. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom — Vallejo, California
Stuck inside a small enclosure set alongside a freeway on one side and roller-coasters full of screaming riders on the other, the elephants at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom are forced to suffer stresses no sensitive animal should bear.
Keepers at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom are known to use bullhooks to prod elephants into giving rides and performing in front of guests — not exhibiting their natural behavior, but tricks designed to entertain and amuse.
“Despite receiving such documentation of torture and abuse, Six Flags continues to use these elephants for rides,” writes IDA.
4. Buttonwood Park Zoo — New Bedford, Massachusetts
As if the rigors of being kept in a small enclosure were not enough to have to endure, elderly Asian elephants Ruth and Emily’s suffering at the Buttonwood Park Zoo is exacerbated by the wholly unnatural climate.
The zoo has been cited before by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to protect the animals from the blistering New England chill. One year, Ruth had to have part of her tail amputated after it developed frostbite, which also caused injuries to her ears and genitals, when she made it outdoors through an unlocked door to escape the claustrophobic barn the elephants are kept in during winter.
5. Bronx Zoo — Bronx, New York
The Bronx Zoo, tucked in the shadow of one of the biggest cities in the world, is home to three elephants, Happy, Patty and Maxine, who are forced to endure the region’s harsh summers and freezing winters in their small habitat.
For nearly 10 years, Happy has been living in isolation after she was attacked by her companions, driven to aggression by the confinement. Sadly, she may be well aware of the extent to which she is suffering; As IDA points out, Happy was involved in scientific cognition tests which were instrumental in proving elephants had self-awareness.
“Shame on the Bronx Zoo for sentencing ‘Happy’ to what is likely the most unhappy of sentences for an elephant: a life of self-aware solitary confinement,” writes IDA.
6. Buffalo Zoo — Buffalo, New York
Far from the heat and humidity of their native India, Jothi and Surapa are made to live through some of the coldest winters in the country at the Buffalo Zoo.
Despite their instinctual desire for the companionship of their own kind, Jothi and Surapa are reportedly kept separated, ushered along by way of their keeper’s use of the bullhook.
“This is the third-oldest zoo in the United States and it shows in the dilapidated elephant exhibit,” writes IDA. “Its shocking lack of space, tragically inadequate social existence, and outdated indoor facility are indicative of just how antiquated the very minimal Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards are for elephants.”
7. Wildlife Safari — Winston, Oregon
Although Wildlife Safari promises an experience similar to that of an African wildlife tour, the elephants living in the park lead lives that bear little resemblance to their home on the continent’s vast expanse.
When not being put on display in their enclosures, the animals are occasionally made to perform tasks for paying guests — like washing cars with their trunks, fearing painful punishment lest they comply.
“The truth is that zoos prematurely age elephants, forcing them to live in inadequate captive conditions that include lack of space and hard flooring that induce arthritis and other problems in relatively young animals,” writes IDA. “Add to that the stress caused by fear of physical punishment with the bullhook and you have one inhumane Wildlife Safari.”
8. Milwaukee County Zoo — Milwaukee, Wisconsin
African elephants, like Ruth and Brittany at the Milwaukee Zoo, are ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of close confinement, yet as captives this is the life they are forced to lead, spending long months cooped up in a small indoor space.
Through a window peering into their enclosure, guests watch them like living museum displays, exhibiting signs of psychological distress, like swaying on their feet as a response to having so little room to roam. “With only two elephants, the Milwaukee Zoo fails to meet even the very minimal standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” writes IDA.
9. Rosamond Gifford Zoo — Syracuse, New York
The Rosamond Gifford Zoo might seem like a fun place to visit with the family, but the facility checks family values at the door when it comes to how they keep their elephants.
Last year, the zoo separated a calf there named Chuck from his mother when he was just six years old, sending him to live on drive-thru attraction in Canada. Because male elephants in the wild usually stay with their parent into their teenage years, such separation was likely traumatic for both Chuck and his mother.
10. Disney’s Animal Kingdom — Lake Buena Vista, Florida
While Disney’s Animal Kingdom goes to great length to recreate a natural-seeming environment for their animal captives, their handling of elephants is sadly par for the course for zoos. In June, keepers there loaded up a pregnant female, named Moyo, to ship her to another facility in Florida. The stresses of travel resulted in complications which ultimately claimed the lives of both Moyo and her offspring.
“Zoos generally do not transfer pregnant females because of the great stress of travel and potential complications,” writes IDA. “This illustrates how zoo transfers are often made with little to no regard for the physical, psychological and social effects on elephants.”
This article originally appeared in The Dodo.
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