New year, new life for captive elephants?

By Debbie Leahy

The new year is here, but a whole new life lies ahead for the 140 elephants who are kept in zoos and circuses throughout India. The country’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) recently announced that it will no longer allow elephants—India’s most prominent national symbol—to be imprisoned in zoos and circuses. The CZA made its decision in response to the mental and physical suffering that captive elephants endure. Elephants already in captivity will be transferred to elephant camps—located near protected areas, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries—that are run by the country’s Forest Department.

The U.S. should follow India’s compassionate lead.

Miserable and unhealthy conditions for captive elephants aren’t unique to India. Elephants in U.S. circuses spend most of their lives in chains or confined to cramped transport vehicles. In many U.S. zoos, elephants live in pens that provide a mere fraction of the space that they want and need. Those in northern states, where long, bitterly cold winters are common, spend the majority of their time indoors. Instead of walking for miles every day as they would on the savannahs and in the jungles where they belong, they are relegated to worlds that are measured in square feet.

Our federal Animal Welfare Act has no regulations or standards that address the unique and complex needs of elephants. The result is poor care, chronic health problems, abusive treatment, psychological disorders, aberrant behavior (including aggression) and premature death.

Elephants are highly intelligent animals who live in socially complex herds, yet there is no law requiring that they be given companionship or environmental enrichment to keep their minds active. Some U.S. zoos and circuses still display solitary elephants—a practice that is extremely detrimental to these social animals’ health and well-being.

Elephants are genetically designed for nearly constant movement, and in the wild, they can roam up to 30 miles a day. Yet zoos and circuses are not required to provide the world’s largest land mammal with—at the very least—exercise, soft earth and dozens of acres to roam. Elephants in circuses can be kept chained for hours—even days—at a time on hard concrete.

Foot ailments and arthritis—which are caused by a lack of exercise and long hours spent standing on hard surfaces in feces and urine—are the primary reasons given for euthanizing captive elephants. Out of 67 elephants who died in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 2000, more than half never reached the age of 40. This is far short of their average life span of 70 years.

According to a researcher who has studied elephants in the wild for 30 years, free-roaming elephant populations do not exhibit the foot problems, stereotypic behavior and other problems that are often observed in captive elephants.

Elephants also love to swim in watering holes and play in mud wallows, but again, no law mandates that they be allowed to do so. Physical abuse is prohibited, but tools such as bullhooks (a rod resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp metal hook on the end), whose only purpose is to inflict physical abuse, are not. Just this week, dozens of photographs were released showing baby elephants being ripped away from their mothers, tied with ropes by all four legs, and beaten with bullhooks at the Ringling Bros. circus’s elephant compound in Florida.

Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been considering whether to develop new standards for elephant care. At this rate, there may be very few elephants left in captivity to benefit from stronger legal protection. Maybe India has it right. Let’s just get them out of circuses and zoos altogether.

Debbie Leahy is a director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510.

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