New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL 2005



by Ardeth Baxter

In the summer of 1997 New Mexicans got a rare glimpse into the brutal lives of captive elephants when a young elephant named Heather was discovered dead of heat stroke in the back of a King Royal Circus transport trailer driving through Albuquerque. Heather’s two emaciated companions, Irene and Donna, were taken to the Río Grande Zoo. Irene, an Asian elephant, remained at the zoo and was later treated for TB. Donna, an African elephant, was transferred to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2003. The King Royal Circus had a notorious record of animal neglect. It was eventually fined and its license to exhibit animals was revoked by the USDA. The public probably assumed that Irene’s and Donna’s stories had a happy ending. After all, they had gone from an abusive life as circus elephants to a pampered zoo existence. But are zoos and circuses really that different, from the point of view of elephants?

Elephants in the wild live in a warm climate, are highly social, and travel some 30 miles a day in family groups, snacking on vegetation and bathing frequently. They can live up to 70 years. Elephants in captivity often die prematurely from conditions that are rare in the wild, such as heat stroke or hypothermia, foot infections and severe arthritis from having to stand on concrete. Tuberculosis, obesity from lack of exercise, or emaciation from inadequate nutrition are also common.

According to a poll by the AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association), 95% of US adults agree that people appreciate elephants being in zoos so they can learn more about them. There is no doubt that elephants are charismatic, and that they represent big bucks for zoos. But according to animal expert Cynthia Moss, who has studied elephants in Kenya for over 30 years, no more than a dozen US zoos should keep elephants.

Just how bad is life for zoo elephants? All three elephants at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, Tatima (35), Peaches (55) and Wankie (35), transferred from the San Diego zoo in 2003, recently died of various causes, including the stress of adjusting to winter weather. Director Kevin Bell has stated that they will not exhibit elephants for a while. Ruby, the only African elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo, recently lost her companion Tara (44) to heart disease. Animal activists are lobbying to send her to a sanctuary, and LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has commented that zoos are inappropriate for elephants. Maggie, the only elephant at the Alaska Zoo since her companion Annabelle died, was given a treadmill in a desperate effort to keep her entertained and exercised. The zoo doesn’t want to give her up for financial reasons, even though Alaska’s climate is too harsh for an elephant. The city council of El Paso recently voted against sending their elephants, Savannah and Juno, who live in a tiny, poorly shaded enclosure, to a sanctuary. According to IDA (In Defense of Animals), the El Paso Zoo is one of the top ten worst zoos for elephants.

Of the 214 zoos accredited by the AZA, 78 display elephants and attract two-thirds of the zoo audience. Another 40 are either rebuilding or adding elephant facilities. In Albuquerque, $1 million has been earmarked to expand the elephant exhibit.

Zoos claim to play an important role in conservation efforts. But the truth is that almost all breeding programs are to preserve captive species and thus, continued income for the zoos. The 1972 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) treaty limited importation of elephants from Africa and Asia. Wild-caught captive elephants are dying out. But Swaziland and South Africa have lately begun exporting elephants. The San Diego zoo recently bought seven and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa bought four from the first wild-caught herd in thirty years.

Breeding is problematic among captive elephants. Of the 150 Asian and 150 African elephants in AZA zoos, less than 100 can breed. Of 30 African elephants born in the US since 1950 and 87 Asian elephants born since 1962, only 17 African and 51 Asian elephants survived their first year.

Another issue is public safety. Elephants can carry TB, and are unpredictable around people. Between 1990 and 2000, 51 people died and over 100 were injured worldwide by captive elephants. Tyke, a circus elephant, killed her trainer, injured 12 others, and was brought down with 100 bullets after a 1994 rampage in Honolulu. Last spring an elephant handler was trampled and critically injured by a Ringling Brothers elephant in Florida.

Zoos and circuses resort to cruel methods to keep elephants under control. Baby elephants are often separated from their mothers, beaten into submission, starved, and tied down. Whips, bull hooks and electric prods are used to “break” them. Ringling Brothers elephant Riccardo, eight months old, fractured both hind legs falling off a pedestal and was euthanized in 2004. Benjamin, a four year old, drowned in a pond trying to escape a trainer with a bull hook in 1999. Kenny, a two year old, was forced to perform when sick and died in 1998. Circus elephants are chained at night. They are given little or no food and water in transit, and must endure extremes of climate. Elephants express boredom and loneliness through pacing, swaying, and head bobbing. The Born Free Foundation found that captive elephants spend 22% of their time involved in these actions.

Eight US zoos have closed their elephant exhibits since 1991. The San Francisco and Detroit zoos are at the forefront of a movement to either improve living conditions for elephants or retire them to sanctuaries. After Calle (37) died in March 2004 and Maybelle (44) soon thereafter, San Francisco Zoo director Manual Mollinedo retired Tinkerbelle to the PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) Ark 2000 in California and her companion Lulu four months later. But sadly, Tinkerbelle (39) soon died from foot ailments. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has approved a law requiring the zoo to provide a 15-acre habitat for future elephants. Ailing Detroit Zoo elephants Wanda (46) and Winky (51) were retired to PAWS this past spring by director Ron L. Kagan, who decided to close the elephant exhibit, citing Detroit’s inappropriate climate and lack of space.

As for circus elephants, thirty-one have died prematurely since 1994, according to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). A number of circuses with elephants perform in New Mexico, including Shriner-sponsored circuses, which have been cited by the USDA for failure to provide adequate elephant care in many regulated areas.

One of the Shriner’s animal suppliers, the Hawthorn Corporation, has an extensive history of abuse and neglect of elephants. In March 2004 the USDA ordered it to relinquish its 16 elephants to USDA-approved facilities, but they haven’t authorized all Hawthorn elephants to be retired to sanctuaries. Four have just been sent to the abusive Carson & Barnes Circus, but some may go to the Elephant Sanctuary.

Should elephants be phased out of zoos and circuses? I think so. Clearly, because of their size, needs and temperament, elephants do poorly in captivity, particularly in circuses, but also in most zoos.

If you want to help captive elephants, go to: or To view sanctuary elephants on a live web cam or video, go to and

Ardeth Baxter is an animal rights advocate and ethical vegan with four dogs and five cats. For more of her writing, visit: Associated Content

I think these elephants are trying to tell us that zoos and circuses are not what God created them for. But we have not been listening. - Blayne Doyle, police officer who shot 47 rounds into Janet, a rampaging elephant from the Great American Circus

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