No Ethical Way to Keep Elephants in Captivity

After reading the April 23, 2013, NewsWatch online post, “Captive Elephant Management: Interview with Knoxville Zoo’s Curator of Elephants,” by guest blogger Jordan Carlton Schaul, I felt compelled to respond. I am the president, and co-founder, of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Founded in 1984, PAWS operates three sanctuaries in Northern California for captive wildlife. These sanctuaries are currently home to more than 100 rescued and retired animals, including 8 elephants and 32 tigers, as well as lions, bears, primates and other species.

I have more than 32 years of experience caring for elephants, both Asian and African, including raising calves and managing dangerous bull elephants. My partner, and PAWS’ co-founder, Pat Derby, had more than 38 years of experience working with elephants. Pat passed away in February of this year after a long battle with cancer.

The reason the management of elephants in captivity is coming under such scrutiny, is not, as the author states, because zoos and sanctuaries offer different environments for elephants, but because zoos and sanctuaries have different philosophies about captivity itself. We have learned so much about the complex physical, social and psychological needs of these animals, not necessarily from zoos, but from bona fide researchers in the field. You need look no farther than National Geographic’s own articles and films documenting elephants’ large, extended families, intricate web of social relationships, and wide-ranging movement in vast home ranges, to see that life in captivity cannot satisfy their most basic needs.

“The inadequacies for elephants in captivity will always be a source of disease and suffering for elephants.”

Concern over the welfare of elephants in captive facilities should never be casually dismissed. The inadequacies for elephants in captivity will always be a source of disease and suffering for elephants. Cramped enclosures and hard surfaces cause a variety of problems, including deadly foot disease and arthritis, infertility, obesity, and abnormal repetitive behaviors such as swaying and head bobbing. Captivity can create stress and often-dangerous situations for elephants who have no choice but to co-exist with other elephants who may or may not be compatible. This has resulted in injuries and even deaths of captive elephants throughout the world.

Some Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos have recognized the need for change and have expanded their exhibits to accommodate larger social groups and to give the elephants more room to move — actions that contradict statements long made by zoo apologists that space is not an important issue for elephants.

Protected Contact

More progressive zoos in this country have also changed their management practices, moving from circus style “free contact” to the more humane “protected contact” system. Protected contact uses only positive reinforcement training and a protective barrier between keeper and elephant. It encourages more natural behaviors because the elephants are no longer under the threat of physical punishment that is the hallmark of free contact management.

The author is misinformed when he states: “…whether an organization permits free or protected contact training of elephants, operant conditioning through positive reinforcement can still serve as the basis for behavioral training.” This is absolutely false. The basis of free contact management involves the use of a bullhook, or ankus — negative reinforcement no matter how you look at it.

The bullhook/ankus is a steel rod resembling a sharpened fireplace poker. It is used to prod, hook and strike elephants to achieve a desired behavior. The bullhook is used to dominate and control elephants through fear of pain, and has no place in any zoo.

More than half of AZA zoos have rejected the bullhook and free contact management. Even more are transitioning to protected contact since the AZA established an occupational safety policy that, as of September 2014, will prohibit keepers from sharing the same physical space with elephants.

“Since 1990, 31 keepers have been injured or killed by elephants, all of them in zoos using free contact.”

The author failed to share with his readers that an elephant managed in free contact killed a keeper at the Knoxville Zoo in 2010. Jim Naelitz, the subject of the interview, is the curator of elephants at this facility. This makes Mr. Naelitz’s statement that working with elephants is not a dangerous profession even more astounding. Since 1990, 31 keepers have been injured or killed by elephants, all of them in zoos using free contact.

The elephant involved in the incident at the Knoxville Zoo had previously exhibited aggression toward keepers, yet, according to the Tennessee Occupational Health and Safety Administration (TOSHA), the zoo failed to take preventive action. TOSHA fined the zoo more than $8,000 in the keeper’s death.

Since this terrible tragedy, the Knoxville Zoo has changed to a protected contact management system for all of their elephants. So it is confounding to me that the photo accompanying the article shows Mr. Naelitz seated next to, and in direct contact with, an elephant at the zoo.

Mr. Naelitz’s praise for circuses and entertainment companies like Have Trunk Will Travel — caught on video striking elephants with bullhooks and using an electric shock device to train them to perform circus tricks — is something that should shock and offend all zoo supporters. The notion that elephants, or any other wild animals in circuses, are “ambassadors for their species” is an old argument used to rationalize the idea of keeping animals in captivity. It is perplexing that any AZA-accredited zoo would support the use of elephants in circuses, when the evidence of their suffering is well documented.

“Wild animals belong in the wild.”

PAWS agrees with the author’s statement that neither zoos nor sanctuaries are the perfect environment for any wild animal. PAWS believes that wild animals belong in the wild.


Photo by Lisa Jeffries, PAWS
Mara and Maggie, African elephants in the dry season in the PAWS ARK 2000 sanctuary in California. Photo by Lisa Jeffries, PAWS.


PAWS ARK 2000, a 2,300-acre sanctuary in San Andreas, California, is currently home to 3 African and 5 Asian elephants, 26 tigers, 6 bears and 5 lions. Photograph by Lisa Jeffries, PAWS.


At PAWS, we provide elephants with large, natural habitat environments that better meet elephants’ physical, social and psychological needs. We never use dominance training or bullhooks to manipulate elephants; we are a protected contact facility. There presently exists no state-of-the-art keeping of elephants in captivity, and because no captive elephant offspring has ever been reintroduced to the wild, and there is no plan to do so, we do not think it is ethical to breed elephants.

As long as there are elephants in captivity, we are obligated to provide the best possible conditions for them. This includes an end to the archaic use of inhumane bullhooks and free contact management, no more elephants in circuses and other types of “entertainment,” and greater progress toward providing elephants with captive facilities that far better meet their needs.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ed Stewart is president of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which he and partner Pat Derby co-founded in 1984. PAWS operates three sanctuaries in Northern California that are home to more than 100 rescued and retired animals, including 8 elephants, 32 tigers, lions, bears, primates and other species. Ed managed the development and design of the 2,300-acre ARK 2000, the country’s largest wildlife sanctuary. He has more than 32 years of experience caring for elephants, both Asian and African. Ed, Pat Derby and PAWS have been featured in numerous national media stories promoting PAWS’ campaigns to protect captive wildlife.