Wednesday, February 25, 2009


You might remember that sometime back I mentioned that I've developed an aversion to zoos over the last few years--largely because, as well intended as the keepers might be, they don't seem to really understand the needs of most of the larger animals--especially the intelligent ones and, in particular, the elephants.  

Yesterday, Gary and I had to be in Springfield to run some important errands, which meant the boys were going to miss school. So what does a homeschooler do in cases like this? We make it into a field trip. After much discussion we concluded that the boys really needed to spend some time outside--it's been a long winter with a lot of extremely cold days and they've spent too much time indoors for my liking--so we settled on the zoo as good combination of outdoor and educational activity 

I had mixed feelings about this, to say the least, but decided that just maybe my last experience with our area zoo was a one time thing. Maybe I'd been too hard on them. Maybe I didn't understand everything I saw. Maybe I was anthropromorphizing a bit much (this is hazard of being both an animal lover and someone who spends a lot of time creating dialogues and characters inside her head). 

As the weather was chilly and overcast and it was the middle of the week we had the place almost to ourselves. We allowed the boys to go off on their own with the understanding that they stay together (Daniel is sixteen, Joe is thirteen, and Sam is 10 and they all more than understand how to behave).  This left Gary and I free to wander at a slower pace, which meant lots of time to take pictures and watch the animals. 

Many of them made it plain they wished we'd just go away. 

Quite obviously, we'd caught them on their day off.

Like reluctant movie stars, some reluctantly posed for the camera. 

Some just pretended we weren't there.

Some tried to talk us into letting them out.

But one or two were hoping we were the folks from and we didn't have the heart to tell them otherwise.

On the other hand, this fellow was quite friendly.

We never did catch his name, but he was more than happy to pose. Here he is giving us a full-length view.

And a profile.

And an action shot--

I'm actually not making this up--he seemed genuinely interested in entertaining us. This was the highlight of my visit to the zoo.

I did not take any pictures of the elephant exhibit. It was simply too depressing. Four female elephants were standing in a pen that was less than an acre with nothing to do--no toys, no food, no water to play in, nothing. One elephant stood with her back to us rocking from one foot to the other (a stress induced behavior never seen in the wild). The other three stared into the distance, their trunks raising occasionally to sniff the air, then dropping down to swing listlessly. They keep their bull elephant locked in a pen by himself with infrequent access to the females and away from public view so I didn't see him, but I can only imagine how hard no company must be on his mind. Gone was the baby elephant I saw two years ago. I found out later that she'd died of elephant Herpes, a disease common to elephants in captivity but rarely seen in the wild.

I learned also that this zoo has the worst reputation for elephant care in the US (though it looks to me like the contest among zoos is narrow). They've bred and produced baby elephants ten times since 1985 and lost all but two of them--primarily to Herpes. You'd think they'd get a hint, test the elephants for it first (or develop a test if there isn't one) or (my preference) stop breeding altogether). Their elephants have frequent foot problems--sometimes crippling--due to spending a fair amount of their time standing on concrete floors. Elephants in the wild live up to 70, even 80 years old. In captivity, if they make it to 40, they're considered ancient.

The argument is that by keeping elephants in zoos that they're insuring the survival of this animal and that the education they offer the public will encourage them to support rescue efforts. According to a study done by a group in 2008, this is failing. Elephants are actually doing better in the wild than in they are in captivity--the the death rates among captive elephants are greater than the their birth rates and that zoos are actually "consuming elephants" instead of sustaining the population. This statistic--found here ABC News--is depressing as hell. And what it reveals is that--in truth--Zoos are more interested in the ticket sales than they are the animals' welfare.

After a few seconds, Gary tugged me away, seeing the same thing I saw, and feeling the same thing I did. The utter wrongness of it, the frustration of seeing animals who are suffering quietly and have no voices of their own. When we found the boys a little later, Sam sidled up beside me and quietly expressed dismay at the condition of the animals. "There's nothing for them to do, Mom. And they look so sad." His older brothers (especially Daniel) were disturbed by the silence and inactivity in the pen.

I didn't set out to end this entry on a sad note, but this issue weighs on me and I've decided that I'd be remiss in not bringing this up. There are lots of organizations who feel the same way I do, but the zoos have more powerful voices, and as long as their animal care passes the minimal requirements put forth by the authorities, then they have the power to do what they wish.

I don't believe zoos are evil places, and I understand the purpose behind them, but I don't think that we are serving many of the animal's needs--least of all the elephants and I believe that if we aren't part of the voices calling out against it, then we are part of the problem. I would like to do is encourage any passersby to speak up as I'm going to do--write the papers, seek out people who do have power and ask them to examine the elephants' plight, stop the zoos from importing elephants from the wild (!), and turn the surviving populations over to sanctuaries like this one in Tennessee. If we're going to save this population, we're not going to do it by keeping them in zoos.

Watch this spot for more information as I learn what I can and cannot do about this.


Scotty said...

Couldn't agree more - as a kid, I loved the zoo but as an adult, I can now see all the wrong things inherent in them.

Big Plain V said...

Zoos are big with the Veenie Babies, and thanks to you, from now on, I'm our visits will include educating them on issues like this.

Mary Paddock said...

Scotty-I think they are a good idea gone awry.

Ray-- I think zoos have some value for kids who wouldn't see those animals otherwise, but it seems to me like we could do it better. I have life long love affair with zoos. My mom was a keeper in the Houston Zoo when I was growing up. It's in my blood, I guess. But what I'm seeing in my local zoo (especially the elephants) leaves me cold and sad.