Elephants in Captivity: A Perspective from Former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation & Science

By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | May 5, 2013

Any discussion of elephants in captivity is met with controversy and criticism. Last week, I asked my colleague Jim Naelitz to provide his expert view on elephant management in zoos. The career elephant trainer and curator, has worked with elephants at three AZA institutions. I felt Jim would provide a perspective fairly representing zoo elephant professionals. I asked him to share his opinions and he graciously agreed to do so.  However, many of his statements received a great deal of criticism from other professionals in the field and from animal activists.

Some adamantly requested that I seek other perspectives to provide the National Geographic readership with a more balanced view of elephant management in zoos.  I turned to my colleague Michael Hutchins. Dr. Hutchins is the former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles about elephant management in accredited zoos. He also organized and led the AZA Elephant Planning Initiative in 1999 and co-authored the report titled:  Elephant Planning Initiative: The Future of Elephants in North American Zoos.  This document and its recommendations provided the impetus for many, if not most, of the improvements in elephant management that we see in AZA-accredited zoos today.

He read the Naelitz interview and these are his responses to the same questions:

Jordan: Although there is controversy over space for elephants in zoos, it would be unfair to say that space is the critical factor in providing elephants with the kind of “welfare” we deem appropriate.  I say this because I have worked with similarly intelligent and sentient animal species at very spacious sanctuaries. At these facilities, stereotypic behaviors still manifested in animals that came right out of the wild in need of rescue–orphaned animals. So what I’m getting at, albeit based on anecdotal evidence, is that it seems people forget about how dynamic an environment can be made to meet the behavioral needs of captive animals through enrichment and conditioning programs. Can you talk about this with regard to elephants?

Michael: Yes, the question of how much space captive elephants need is an interesting one.  I agree that most animals, including elephants, are quite lazy (energetically conservative).  They travel and use precious energy only when they must to gain access to critical resources, such as water, food, mates and so forth. Thus, the amount of time wild elephants spend traveling is completely dependent on their local ecologies.  Some populations travel less than others, so there is flexibility in this regard (Hutchins, M. 2006. Variation in nature and its implications for zoo elephant management. Zoo Biology 25.: 161-171).

Animal activists claim that all elephants travel many miles a day and that captivity could never provide for that “need.” Furthermore, they claim that there is no way that elephants can be kept in captivity from an ethical perspective.  Activists have a right to their opinion, but this is a myth.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that captive elephants require considerably more space and exercise than they have traditionally been given by urban zoo designers, but there has been considerable progress in the way that elephants are exhibited in many zoos.  Newer exhibits, such as those at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Dallas Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and Smithsonian’s National Zoo, provide a few acres with sufficient space for social interaction, feeding, bathing, and wallowing.

In addition, keepers are now providing environmental enrichment through training, preferred food items, “toys” and other techniques (Shepherdson, D.  1999. Environmental enrichment for elephants: Current status and future directions. Journal of the Elephant Managers Association 10: 69-77). Of course, in the case of these highly social animals, perhaps the most critical source of stimulation is the presence of conspecifics (Poole, J.H., and Moss, C.J. 2008. Elephant sociality and complexity.  Pp. 69-98 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).  The presence of young animals in the group appears to be particularly important, as they are often the focus of group activities.  This is why it is so critical that elephant holding facilities are able to maintain larger and relatively stable groups of adult females and their young, and this will require larger exhibits and holding areas.

The question of whether or not elephants ought to be held in captivity at all is a values judgment, rather than a scientific question, but it does deserve an answer.  From a philosophical viewpoint, I always try to look at what policies will produce the greatest good. As I pointed out in a previous interview, there is an acknowledged trade-off between zoo exhibition and animal welfare.   But, do the benefits derived from zoo-based public education, research, and support of field conservation efforts (see below) outweigh those costs?  This would not be the case if the animals’ welfare was being severely compromised by captivity.

However, if proper care can be provided (and I believe it can: see Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Keele, M. 2008. Zoos as responsible stewards of elephants.  Pp. 285-305 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) and the zoos in question are making significant contributions to education, science, and conservation, then the benefits of captivity can outweigh the costs (Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Allard, R. 2003.  In defense of zoos and aquariums: The ethical basis for keeping wild animals in captivity.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223 (7): 958-966). However, this puts a great deal of pressure on elephant-holding institutions to follow through. As I’ve said before, “The opportunity to care for, exhibit, and learn from these incredible and complex animals should be considered a privilege, not a right.”

Jordan: Is it fair to say that the bond between trainer and animal in a zoo setting is fairly strong and in the case of working with elephants it is critical?

Michael: It depends on the reason for having the animals in captivity. If the goal is simply to breed and exhibit the animals in question, then the keeper-animal relationship is very important.  Some animals, like, small cats, have been shown to breed more successfully when they are comfortable with their keeper’s routines and personalities (Mellen, J. 2005. Factors influencing reproductive success in small captive exotic felids (Felis spp.): A multiple regression analysis. Zoo Biology 10(2): 95-110).  However, if the ultimate goal for an animal is the reintroduction, then little or no contact between the keepers and animals is often preferable. For example, great efforts are made to keep keepers and whooping cranes apart during the captive rearing process for fear that the birds will imprint on their human caretakers.

In addition, large carnivores, such as wolves, need to retain a healthy fear of humans in order to survive in the wild.  If they become habituated to humans, as they often do in captivity, then they may not be good reintroduction candidates.  Although the potential for the successful reintroduction of captive-bred elephants exists (Evans, K., Moore,  R., and Harris, S.  The social and ecological integration of captive-raised adolescent male African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) into a wild population. PLoS ONE 8(2): e55933. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055933), elephants are not currently being bred in zoos for the purpose of reintroduction. In the case of captive elephants, the keeper-elephant bond was particularly important in traditional free contact management systems (see below).

However, from a zoo management viewpoint, this made it very difficult, if not impossible, for a range of keepers to be employed to perform the same animal care tasks. How would zoos be able to continue to provide excellent animal care if the keeper having a “special bond” with “his” or “her” elephants left? It is much better to have interchangeable staff since there is no way to know when a particular staff member will leave their employment for personal, health, or other reasons. In addition, no employee should consider themselves indispensable, as that can lead to performance or attitude problems. So, do keepers need to be well-educated in elephant management and utilize standardized training and other care procedures? Absolutely.  Do the keepers need to have a routine, which the animals become accustomed to? Yes. Do the animals need to be treated like pets and develop a “close” bond with specific keepers? No.

This is more about the needs of some keepers, rather than those of the animals. The AZA has an elephant management training course, which all elephant keepers are encouraged to attend. The intention behind this course was to begin to standardize elephant management and care procedures across member institutions.  This is one factor that has led to improvements in both keeper safety and elephant husbandry.

Jordan:  Can you tell me a bit about the Elephant Managers Association and what it does for elephants?

Michael: The Elephant Manager’s Association (EMA) has traditionally been an organization representing elephant keepers and managers in both circuses and zoos. While this non-profit, professional organization has done much to promote information exchange among elephant caretakers through its publications and conferences, it has also, at times, opposed necessary evolutionary changes in the profession, such as the movement towards protected contact management systems.  Furthermore, EMA’s existence has been a bit confusing for elephant-holding institutions, since both the EMA and AZA have formulated their own guidelines for elephant management and care.

In many ways, EMA’s activities greatly overlap that of the AZA’s Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which was developed to plan cooperatively for the future of elephants in North American accredited zoos.  That being said, it doesn’t hurt to have a range of opinions.  The EMA is a useful organization and has contributed to the improvement of elephant captive management and conservation.

Jordan: Many people are unaware of what captive elephant programs in zoos offer to field programs.  Zoos and field researchers sometimes work together for the benefit of animals, with the objective being to save elephants from extinction, correct?

Michael: Yes, in the case of many accredited zoos (but not sanctuaries or non-accredited zoos), that is correct. Many people, especially animal activists, do not appreciate the contributions that modern, accredited zoos have and are making towards elephant conservation.  My colleague Brandie Smith (now Curator of Mammals at Smithsonian’s National Zoo) and I co-authored an article on this topic in 2000 (Smith, B., and Hutchins, M. 2000. The value of captive breeding programmes to field conservation: Elephants as an example.  Pachyderm 28: 101-109). In this article, we took great care to explain that the reasons for keeping and breeding animals in captivity go way beyond reintroduction, which is not currently a goal for the AZA’s African or Asian Elephant Species Survival Plans (SSPs are the cooperative, science-based captive breeding, and conservation programs administered by zoos).

We provided examples of zoo-based public education programs specifically focused on elephants, zoo-based research projects that have contributed to our knowledge of elephant communication and reproductive biology, and zoos’ growing commitment to supporting elephant field conservation.  For instance, much research has been done on the hormonal cycles and communication patterns of zoo elephants and this has contributed to a greater understanding of elephant biology, which is now being applied in the field. Infrasonic communication in elephants was first documented at Oregon’s Portland Zoo, and even further refined by research at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and in the field. Techniques for the satellite tracking of elephants have been tested on zoo elephants prior to being used in the field. The International Elephant Foundation, essentially a zoo-based organization, has contributed more than $2 million dollars to elephant conservation and associated research and educational programs in range countries.

Similarly, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization that administers four zoos and an aquarium in the greater New York Metropolitan Area, also runs one of the oldest and largest field conservation programs in the world. Much of the organization’s work has been focused on elephant conservation.   In addition, the San Diego and Lowry Park Zoos imported 11 African elephants from Swaziland in 2003, the first allowed in decades. As a condition of the importation, which was legally permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the zoos provided substantial funding that allowed this small African country to increase the size of one of its national parks. Despite the fact that these animals had been designated for culling, animal rights groups protested the action, thus highlighting the differences between animal rights and conservation philosophy (see Hutchins, M. The animal rights-conservation debate: Can zoos and aquariums play a role?  Pp. 92-109 in Zimmermann, A., Hatchwell, M., Dickie, L., and West, C. (eds.) Zoos in the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation? Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press).

Jordan: Elephant work can be very dangerous.  Can you share your opinion of free contact vs. protected contact elephant training?

Michael:  The number of elephant-related deaths and injuries has admittedly declined in recent years; nonetheless, under the right circumstances, the risks can be quite high, and they are particularly high in what is known as “free contact” management systems.  AZA has finally moved its member institutions toward protected contact management of elephants, a safer and more humane approach, which involves positive reinforcement training through a protective barrier.  The traditional method—free contact management– had been based on circus training using a bullhook (or ankus) to guide and punish the animals and with the trainer and elephant sharing the same physical space. This method was often abused and elephant welfare was sometimes compromised.

Many elephant keepers resisted this change, but then many of them were also being injured or killed. At one point, elephant keeping was declared one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. For years, I argued for the adoption of protected contact management at AZA institutions, citing animal welfare, keeper safety, and liability concerns, and this made me some enemies.  That being said, in 2006, I and two co-authors published a systematic analysis of elephant keeper injuries and deaths from 1988 to 2003 in Europe and North America in the International Zoo Yearbook, a publication of the Zoological Society of London (Gore, M., Hutchins, M. and Ray, J. 2006. A review of injuries caused by elephants in captivity: An examination of predominant factors. International Zoo Yearbook 40: 51-62).

The results from that study indicated that the vast majority of injuries and deaths occurred in free contact management systems. The rare injuries that occurred during protected contact management were attributed to keepers not following established protocol. There were no reported deaths.  Now that a safer and, in many ways, more humane method of training exists, it would be hard to argue for a continuation of free contact management, although it is still occurring in some countries, such as Australia, in circuses, and in non-accredited zoos.

Not surprisingly, there was a recent serious keeper injury at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.  Though it has not to my knowledge occurred yet, a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of a deceased elephant keeper could bring serious financial hardship to his or her employer, an important consideration for zoo administrators. In addition, from personal experience, the loss of a keeper to an animal-related injury can negatively impact the morale of an entire institution for long periods of time and should be avoided at all costs.

Jordan: Facilities have to manage bull elephants and cows differently. Can you talk about this and any special consideration for herd dynamics in captivity?

Michael: Yes, mature adult male elephants can weigh up to 15,000 pounds and become very aggressive during musth (a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by a significant rise in reproductive hormones, particularly testosterone).  As such, they have special management considerations.   In nature, mature adult males live a largely solitary existence and seldom interact with matriarchal female groups except during breeding (Poole, J.H., and Moss, C.J. 2008. Elephant sociality and complexity.  Pp. 69-98 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Young males eventually emigrate from their natal group, and to survive on their own, must have sufficient social experience with other males.  Thus, the keeping of mature adult males with females, and their young for extended periods of time would present an unnatural situation.  This is why adult males, particularly those in musth, are often separated from adult females, and their young, particularly if they exhibit high levels of aggression.

Jordan: What is your hope for the future direction of elephant management in captive breeding centers?

Michael:  I have several hopes for the future of elephant management in accredited North American zoos, many of which are expressed in Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Keele, M. 2008. Zoos as responsible stewards of elephants.  Pp. 285-305 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. They can be summarized as follows:

(1)   That zoos are able to improve elephant husbandry and reproduction to the point that the SSP-managed population is sustainable over the long term. This will likely involve the need to import additional elephants from range countries. In a previous article, I and a co-author discussed ethical and practical considerations for accredited zoos that are contemplating future importations (Hutchins, M., and Keele, M. 2006. Elephant importations from range countries: Ethical and practical considerations for accredited zoos. Zoo Biology 25: 219-233). Achieving sustainability will also involve allowing female elephants to breed earlier and more frequently so that reproductive abnormalities do not occur. Many adult females currently in the SSP-managed population were purposely prevented from breeding due to the lack of space or holding facilities for adult males. This, in turn, produced a generation of female elephants that may now be incapable of reproduction (Brown, J., Olson, D., Keele, M., and Freeman, E.W. 2004. Survey of the reproductive cyclicity status of Asian and African elephants in North America. Zoo Biology 23:309–321);

(2)   That zoos move toward larger, more naturalistic enclosures (several acres) for elephants that improve public education, while also offering the animals enhanced opportunities to exhibit their full range of natural behaviors.  In particular, captive elephants need more exercise and social stimulation. Given the cost of appropriate animal care and exhibition, this will mean that fewer zoos will be able to keep elephants in the future;

(3)   That, as a result of the larger enclosures and holding areas, elephant social groups can be made larger. Furthermore, adult females and their female offspring can be kept in largely stable groups, as would occur in nature. This would greatly improve the welfare of captive elephants by maintaining social bonds within the matriarchal group;

(4)   That zoos develop a better way of housing and caring for adult males. The establishment of the National Elephant Center should be a major step forward in this regard.   Semen could be sent from males housed at the Center to be used in artificial insemination, instead of each facility having to maintain special male-specific enclosures and care programs. Also, young males could be kept together until they reach full sexual maturity, thus enhancing their lives and giving them a chance to learn normal adult male social behavior.  Natural breeding should be allowed to occur as well, especially at the Center and at zoos that have appropriate facilities to hold adult males;

(5)   That all zoos exhibiting elephants move toward protected contact management and positive reinforcement training techniques to enhance elephant welfare and keeper safety;

(6)   That methods of elephant management and exhibition continually become more standardized across institutions through improved keeper training and enhanced requirements for accreditation;

(7)   That continued progress is made in the resolution of elephant health problems (particularly obesity, endotheliotropic herpes virus, Tuberculosis, and foot problems); A peer-reviewed study confirmed that the average life spans of zoo elephants are nearly identical to that of wild elephants for which data are available (Wiese, R.J. and Willis, K. 2004. Calculation of longevity and life expectancy in captive elephants.  Zoo Biology 23: 365-373); but, to a point,  it is possible to do better.

(8)   That the success or failure of innovative exhibit designs, environmental enrichment programs, and other care programs be objectively measured and evaluated through the scientific method, and that the results of this research be used to further move zoo elephant management programs towards the best available practices;

(9)   That all zoos, particularly elephant holding facilities, increase their financial commitment to elephant field conservation and research. Zoos could also improve their public education programs regarding the serious conservation challenges facing elephants today, which ironically involve both poaching and overpopulation in national parks and equivalent reserves. A recent article suggests that zoos need not shy away from critical issues in conservation education, even though the messages may be distasteful (Esson, M., and Moss, A. 2013. The risk of delivering disturbing messages to zoo family audiences. The Journal of Environmental Education 44: 79-96).

(10) Last but not least, the zoo-circus relationship needs to become a thing of the past. There is no way that even the best traveling circuses can provide the kinds of conditions that will allow captive elephants to thrive (Alward, L. 2008. Why circuses are unsuited to elephants. Pp. 205-224 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). As such, accredited zoos should not tarnish their reputation by exchanging animals with circuses or similar entities.  The use of threatened or endangered species purely for entertainment should be an anathema to serious conservationists. In fact, the Oakland Zoo—an AZA-accredited institution–produced a series of colorful posters opposing the use of wild animals by circuses.


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Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife and conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (As executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.