Another neighbor just died, in her prime. Tara, a 41 year old African Elephant, died on the last day of November, at the Toronto Zoo, near where I live. Okay, not a next door neighbor, but I feel as though I knew her as I sketched and photographed her and simply watched her, many times. She is the third elephant to die there in the last 14 months!
The Toronto Zoo has told the media that elephants only life about 40 to 45 years. This from the same industry that claims part of its raison d’être is to educate the public about wild animals. Then zoos should tell the truth. In Kenya . elephants have been known to give birth in their 50s. Elephants in the wild live well into their 60s or longer, and an Asian elephant has lived to age 86.
Tessa, Tequila, Tantor, Toronto, and TW are other elephants who died well before their time at the Toronto Zoo. In fact, friends of mine who track captive elephants predicted Tanya’s passing when Tessa, at age 39, died six months ago. And they have, sadly, predicted more of my elephant neighbors dying in the next little while, as all have reached not maturity, as the Toronto Zoo would have us believe, but are middle aged, and therefore about as old as captive elephants can expect to survive.
For some species, zoo life can be free of hunger, predation and other problems faced in the wild, and as a result, there are a few animals, a dwarf crocodile at Toronto Zoo, for example, whose captive life exceeds what would probably be expected for a wild counterpart. But not many species, most emphatically not including elephants.
While the local media was reporting Tara’s untimely death, it failed to report that India, where the Asian elephant is a native species, had just decided that no elephants should ever be kept in captivity. It is morally irresponsible.
And while zoos and refuges can breed and release a relatively small range of endangered species, that does not apply to elephants. The world’s zoo elephants are not put into the wild, nor would that serve any conservation purpose even if they could be. Breeding is something wild elephants do very well when protected in the wild. The money spent (or, in Toronto, will be spent if the idea of increasing the indoor elephant holding area’s size goes ahead) by zoos would go so much further in conserving elephants if donated to efforts to reduce elephant poaching and fight the demand for ivory that thousands of animals could survive wild and free where they belong, for every pathetic specimen in zoos and circuses. There are viable elephant sanctuaries where elephants could be sent to live a semblance of natural life in social groupings, and maybe have a chance at truly surviving to full maturity.
Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA United with Animal Protection Institute