On February 18, 2010, the Toronto Zoo Board of Management will discuss a feasibility study undertaken in 2008 regarding the future requirements of caring for elephants at the zoo and for maintaining a herd of elephants into the future. Despite four elephant deaths in four years, a grossly inadequate physical facility, lack of space and an inappropriate climate, people associated with the zoo have already said they want to continue to keep elephants.
Information obtained by Zoocheck suggests the zoo may try to bring their facility up to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) standard for elephants by making modifications to their existing enclosure. But these so-called improvements will be minor, cost millions of dollars and won’t make much difference to the animals.
The AZA standards are behind the times and ignore key facets of elephant biology and behaviour. For example, although all species of elephants have large home ranges in the wild and spend up to 20 hours each day engaged in a complex array of movements and behaviours, the AZA outdoor space requirement for a single elephant is a mere 1,800 sq. ft. That’s more than 60,000 times smaller than the smallest home range of elephants in the wild. And making things worse is the fact that elephants in northern zoos often can't use outdoor space when it's too cold.
The AZA also says a minimum of three elephants should be kept together. Far better than one, but a far cry from an elephant’s natural extended family group with its multitude of lifetime relationships.
Under close examination, the AZA standards seem geared more to the convenience of zoos than to the welfare of elephants. That may be why early mortality, infanticide, rejection, disease, abnormal behaviours and a range of other problems are ubiquitous in North America’s urban zoos.
I expect Toronto Zoo officials will claim elephants are being poached in the wild, so they need to help raise awareness and conserve them, even though they seem to have great difficulty keeping them alive. Of course, they’re not alone. The North American zoo elephant population is declining every year and, without recruitment from the wild, the population will gradually fizzle out of existence. It’s safe to say that if saving elephants is reliant on zoos, they are most certainly on the fast track to extinction.
Not too long ago, the Central Zoo Authority in India decreed that all elephants in zoos must be released to the wild or moved to sanctuaries. They chose this course of action after a great deal of study and consultation. They determined that elephants in Indian zoos, where the climate is perfect and there is hundreds of years of experience in caring for elephants, were suffering and that their incarceration contributed little, if anything, to elephant conservation.
India has the longest history of keeping elephants in captivity and more wild elephants than any other home range country. If zoos in India can’t do it right, it’s hard to believe that half a world away elephants living in postage stamp-sized pens on hard surfaces in unnatural social groups, enduring alien, hostile climates, can do well.
If the Toronto Zoo were truly interested in the welfare of individual elephants and the conservation of both African and Asian elephants, they would phase out elephant keeping altogether and instead provide real support to legitimate elephant conservation programs. Providing funds to in-situ elephant conservation initiatives in stable elephant home range countries will do far more to safeguard the species than all the elephant exhibits in North American zoos combined.
The Toronto Zoo Board of Management will soon discuss the fate of elephants at their zoo. Will they be a rubber stamp committee who just regurgitates whatever the zoo feeds them? Will they tow the party line about how the zoo needs elephants, how well cared for they are and what a pivotal role they can play in elephant conservation? I hope not. With the lives of the animals at stake, as well as millions of dollars, it would be nice to think the members of the board have actually done some research into the reality of elephant lives in urban zoos and are prepared to ask some tough questions and make some tough decisions.