Elephants are incredible animals.
They’re gentle, emotional giants who express themselves much in the same way as humans. They visit the remains of their loved ones, and cry tears of joy after being freed from violent captivity. The days where you could visit these animals at your local zoo, however, might be numbered.
Many zoos across North America are either choosing to scrap their elephant exhibits or are opting not to replace them after they die. South of the border, a new national guideline is spurring the change, requiring zoo owners to close their exhibits by 2017 if they can’t bring in larger herds and expand their facilities.
According to the General Manager of the Greater Vancouver Zoo, however, the sustainability of Canadian elephant exhibits is mostly an issue of money.
“Elephants are the most expensive exotic animal you can house,” said Jody Henderson. “We’ll never get more elephants here.”
The Greater Vancouver Zoo isn’t a stranger to elephant ownership though. The company found itself embroiled in controversy over one named Tina back in 2003. She lived in the same cage for 30 years, where she developed health problems. The zoo transferred her to a sanctuary in Tennessee to receive better care, but she died less than a year after arriving.
The Greater Vancouver Zoo isn’t alone. After four of its elephants died in four years, the Toronto Zoo shipped its remaining three to a sanctuary in California, a move that was paid for by former game show host Bob Barker. Staff also confirmed in an email to The Loop that the Toronto Zoo “doesn’t have plans for another elephant exhibit.” The Edmonton Valley Zoo, meanwhile, took its place within In Defence of Animals “Hall of Shame” over its sole elephant named Lucy (activists say Edmonton winters are too harsh for the animal).
A similar trend unfolded in the U.S. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which had elephants in its facilities since 1921, began discussing the future of its herd after a third elephant died in 2014. A community task force recommended in 2013 that the zoo bring in a larger herd and expand its facilities to better care for the large animals, but the CEO said those goals were not achievable in part because it is so difficult to obtain new elephants. The zoo recently closed its elephant exhibit and sent its animals to a larger zoo in Oklahoma. The Bronx Zoo in New York City is also moving in the same direction.
Additionally, activists say that the stress of being confined is too much for elephants to bare, and they often take up unusual behaviours as a result, such as bobbing their heads up and down.
It’s no surprise then, given the immense costs and sensitives associated with their ownership, why elephants are disappearing from North American zoos.