Elephants in Captivity: A Perspective from Former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation & Science

Any discussion of elephants in captivity is met with controversy and criticism. Last week, I asked my colleague Jim Naelitz to provide his expert view on elephant management in zoos. The career elephant trainer and curator has worked with elephants at three AZA institutions. I felt Jim would provide a perspective fairly representing zoo elephant professionals. I asked him to share his opinions and he graciously agreed to do so.  However, many of his statements received a great deal of criticism by other professionals in the field and from animal activists.

Some adamantly requested that I seek other perspectives to provide the National Geographic readership with a more balanced view of elephant management in zoos.  I turned to my colleague Michael Hutchins. Dr. Hutchins is the former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles about elephant management in accredited zoos. He also organized and led the AZA Elephant Planning Initiative in 1999 and co-authored the report titled:  Elephant Planning Initiative: The Future of Elephants in North American Zoos.  This document and its recommendations provided the impetus for many, if not most, of the improvements in elephant management that we see in AZA-accredited zoos today.

He read the Naelitz interview and these are his responses to the same questions:

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Jordan: Although there is controversy over space for elephants in zoos, it would be unfair to say that space is the critical factor in providing elephants with the kind of “welfare” we deem appropriate.  I say this because I have worked with similarly intelligent and sentient animal species at very spacious sanctuaries. At these facilities stereotypic behaviors still manifested in animals that came right out of the wild in need of rescue–orphaned animals. So what I’m getting at, albeit based on anecdotal evidence, is that it seems people forget about how dynamic an environment can be made to meet the behavioral needs of captive animals through enrichment and conditioning programs. Can you talk about this with regard to elephants?

Michael: Yes, the question of how much space captive elephants need is an interesting one.  I agree that most animals, including elephants, are quite lazy (energetically conservative).  They travel and use precious energy only when they must to gain access to critical resources, such as water, food, mates and so forth. Thus, the amount of time wild elephants spend traveling is completely dependent on their local ecologies.  Some populations travel less than others, so there is flexibility in this regard (Hutchins, M. 2006. Variation in nature and its implications for zoo elephant management. Zoo Biology 25.: 161-171).

Animal activists claim that all elephants travel many miles a day and that captivity could never provide for that “need.” Furthermore, they claim that there is no way that elephants can be kept in captivity from an ethical perspective.  Activists have a right to their opinion, but this is a myth.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe that captive elephants require considerably more space and exercise than they have traditionally been given by urban zoo designers, but there has been considerable progress in the way that elephants are exhibited in many zoos.  Newer exhibits, such as those at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Dallas Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and Smithsonian’s National Zoo, provide a few acres with sufficient space for social interaction, feeding, bathing and wallowing.

In addition, keepers are now providing environmental enrichment through training, preferred food items, “toys” and other techniques (Shepherdson, D.  1999. Environmental enrichment for elephants: Current status and future directions. Journal of the Elephant Managers Association 10: 69-77). Of course, in the case of these highly social animals, perhaps the most critical source of stimulation is the presence of conspecifics (Poole, J.H., and Moss, C.J. 2008. Elephant sociality and complexity.  Pp. 69-98 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).  The presence of young animals in the group appears to be particularly important, as they are often the focus of group activities.  This is why it is so critical that elephant holding facilities are able to maintain larger and relatively stable groups of adult females and their young, and this will require larger exhibits and holding areas.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Courtesy of M. Hutchins)


The question of whether or not elephants ought to be held in captivity at all is a values judgment, rather than a scientific question, but it does deserve an answer.  From a philosophical viewpoint, I always try to look at what policies will produce the greatest good. As I pointed out in a previous interview, there is an acknowledged tradeoff between zoo exhibition and animal welfare.   But, do the benefits derived from zoo-based public education, research, and support of field conservation efforts (see below) outweigh those costs?  This would not be the case if the animals’ welfare was being severely compromised by captivity.

However, if proper care can be provided (and I believe it can: see Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Keele, M. 2008. Zoos as responsible stewards of elephants.  Pp. 285-305 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press) and the zoos in question are making significant contributions to education, science, and conservation, then the benefits of captivity can outweigh the costs (Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Allard, R. 2003.  In defense of zoos and aquariums: The ethical basis for keeping wild animals in captivity.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223 (7): 958-966). However, this puts a great deal of pressure on elephant holding institutions to follow through. As I’ve said before, “The opportunity to care for, exhibit and learn from these incredible and complex animals should be considered a privilege, not a right.”

Jordan: Is it fair to say that bond between trainer and animal in a zoo setting is fairly strong and in the case of working with elephants it is critical?

Michael: It depends on the reason for having the animals in captivity. If the goal is simply to breed and exhibit the animals in question, then the keeper-animal relationship is very important.  Some animals, like, small cats, have been shown to breed more successfully when they are comfortable with their keeper’s routines and personalities (Mellen, J. 2005. Factors influencing reproductive success in small captive exotic felids (Felis spp.): A multiple regression analysis. Zoo Biology 10(2): 95-110).  However, if the ultimate goal for an animal is reintroduction, then little or no contact between the keepers and animals is often preferable. For example, great efforts are made to keep keepers and whooping cranes apart during the captive rearing process for fear that the birds will imprint on their human caretakers.

In addition large carnivores, such as wolves, need to retain a healthy fear of humans in order to survive in the wild.  If they become habituated to humans, as they often do in captivity, then they may not be good reintroduction candidates.  Although the potential for successful reintroduction of captive-bred elephants exists (Evans, K., Moore,  R., and Harris, S.  The social and ecological integration of captive-raised adolescent male African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) into a wild population. PLoS ONE 8(2): e55933. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055933), elephants are not currently being bred in zoos for the purpose of reintroduction. In the case of captive elephants, the keeper-elephant bond was particularly important in traditional free contact management systems (see below).

However, from a zoo management viewpoint, this made it very difficult, if not impossible, for a range of keepers to be employed to perform the same animal care tasks. How would zoos be able to continue to provide excellent animal care if the keeper having a “special bond” with “his” or “her” elephants left? It is much better to have interchangeable staff, since there is no way to know when a particular staff member will leave their employment for personal, health, or other reasons. In addition, no employee should consider themselves indispensable, as that can lead to performance or attitude problems. So, do keepers need to be well-educated in elephant management and utilize standardized training and other care procedures? Absolutely.  Do the keepers need to have a routine, which the animals become accustomed to? Yes. Do the animals need to be treated like pets and develop a “close” bond with specific keepers? No.

This is more about the needs of some keepers, rather than those of the animals. The AZA has an elephant management training course, which all elephant keepers are encouraged to attend. The intention behind this course was to begin to standardize elephant management and care procedures across member institutions.  This is one factor that has led to improvements in both keeper safety and elephant husbandry.

Jordan:  Can you tell me a bit about the Elephant Managers Association and what it does for elephants?

Nashville Zoo (Courtesy of M. Hutchins)

Michael: The Elephant Manager’s Association (EMA) has traditionally been an organization representing elephant keepers and managers in both circuses and zoos.  While this non-profit, professional organization has done much to promote information exchange among elephant caretakers through its publications and conferences, it has also, at times, opposed necessary evolutionary changes in the profession, such as the movement towards protected contact management systems.  Furthermore, EMA’s existence has been a bit confusing for elephant-holding institutions, since both the EMA and AZA have formulated their own guidelines for elephant management and care.

In many ways, EMA’s activities greatly overlap that of the AZA’s Elephant Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which was developed to plan cooperatively for the future of elephants in North American accredited zoos.  That being said, it doesn’t hurt to have a range of opinions.  The EMA is a useful organization and has contributed to the improvement of elephant captive management and conservation.

Jordan: Many people are unaware of what captive elephant programs in zoos offer to field programs.  Zoos and field researchers sometimes work together for the benefit of animals, with the objective being to save elephants from extinction, correct?

Oregon Zoo (Courtesy of M. Hutchins)

Michael: Yes, in the case of many accredited zoos (but not sanctuaries or non-accredited zoos), that is correct. Many people, especially animal activists, do not appreciate the contributions that modern, accredited zoos have and are making towards elephant conservation.  My colleague Brandie Smith (now Curator of Mammals at Smithsonian’s National Zoo) and I co-authored an article on this topic in 2000 (Smith, B., and Hutchins, M. 2000. The value of captive breeding programmes to field conservation: Elephants as an example.  Pachyderm 28: 101-109). In this article, we took great care to explain that the reasons for keeping and breeding animals in captivity go way beyond reintroduction, which is not currently a goal for the AZA’s African or Asian Elephant Species Survival Plans (SSPs are the cooperative, science-based captive breeding and conservation programs administered by zoos).

We provided examples of zoo-based public education programs specifically focused on elephants, zoo-based research projects that have contributed to our knowledge of elephant communication and reproductive biology, and zoos’ growing commitment to supporting elephant field conservation.  For instance, much research has been done on the hormonal cycles and communication patterns of zoo elephants and this has contributed to a greater understanding of elephant biology, which is now being applied in the field. Infrasonic communication in elephants was first documented at Oregon’s Portland Zoo, and even further refined by research at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and in the field. Techniques for the satellite tracking of elephants have been tested on zoo elephants prior to being used in the field. The International Elephant Foundation, essentially a zoo-based organization, has contributed more than $2 million dollars to elephant conservation and associated research and educational programs in range countries.

Similarly, the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization that administers four zoos and an aquarium in the greater New York Metropolitan Area, also runs one of the oldest and largest field conservation programs in the world. Much of the organization’s work has been focused on elephant conservation.   In addition, the San Diego and Lowry Park Zoos imported 11 African elephants from Swaziland in 2003, the first allowed in decades. As a condition of the importation, which was legally permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the zoos provided substantial funding that allowed this small African country to increase the size of one of its national parks. Despite the fact that these animals had been designated for culling, animal rights groups protested the action, thus highlighting the differences between animal rights and conservation philosophy (see Hutchins, M. The animal rights-conservation debate: Can zoos and aquariums play a role?  Pp. 92-109 in Zimmermann, A., Hatchwell, M., Dickie, L., and West, C. (eds.) Zoos in the 21st Century: Catalysts for Conservation? Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press).

Jordan: Elephant work can be very dangerous.  Can you share your opinion of free contact vs. protected contact elephant training?

Michael:  The number of elephant-related deaths and injuries has admittedly declined in recent years; nonetheless, under the right circumstances, the risks can be quite high, and they are particularly high in what is known as “free contact” management systems.  AZA has finally moved its member institutions toward protected contact management of elephants, a safer and more humane approach, which involves positive reinforcement training though a protective barrier.  The traditional method—free contact management– had been based on circus training using a bull hook (or ankus) to guide and punish the animals and with the trainer and elephant sharing the same physical space. This method was often abused and elephant welfare was sometimes compromised.

San Diego Zoo Global (Courtesy of M. Hutchins)

Many elephant keepers resisted this change, but then many of them were also being injured or killed. At one point, elephant keeping was declared one of the most dangerous jobs in North America. For years, I argued for the adoption of protected contact management at AZA institutions, citing animal welfare, keeper safety, and liability concerns, and this made me some enemies.  That being said, in 2006, I and two co-authors published a systematic analysis of elephant keeper injuries and deaths from 1988 to 2003 in Europe and North America in the International Zoo Yearbook, a publication of the Zoological Society of London (Gore, M., Hutchins, M. and Ray, J. 2006. A review of injuries caused by elephants in captivity: An examination of predominant factors. International Zoo Yearbook 40: 51-62).

The results from that study clearly indicated that the vast majority of injuries and deaths occurred in free contact management systems. The rare injuries that occurred during protected contact management were attributed to keepers not following established protocol. There were no reported deaths.  Now that a safer and, in many ways, more humane method of training exists, it would be hard to argue for a continuation of free contact management, although it is still occurring in some countries, such as Australia, in circuses, and in non-accredited zoos.

Not surprisingly, there was a recent serious keeper injury at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.  Though it has not to my knowledge occurred yet, a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of a deceased elephant keeper could bring serious financial hardship to his or her employer, an important consideration for zoo administrators. In addition, from personal experience, the loss of a keeper to an animal-related injury can negatively impact the morale of an entire institution for long periods of time and should be avoided at all costs.

Jordan: Facilities have to manage bull elephants and cows differently. Can you talk about this and any special consideration for herd dynamics in captivity?

Michael: Yes, mature adult male elephants can weigh up to 15,000 pounds and become very aggressive during musth (a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by a significant rise in reproductive hormones, particularly testosterone).  As such, they have special management considerations.   In nature, mature adult males live a largely solitary existence and seldom interact with matriarchal female groups except during breeding (Poole, J.H., and Moss, C.J. 2008. Elephant sociality and complexity.  Pp. 69-98 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Young males eventually emigrate from their natal group, and to survive on their own, must have sufficient social experience with other males.  Thus, the keeping of mature adult males with females and their young for extended periods of time would present an unnatural situation.  This is why adult males, particularly those in musth, are often separated from adult females and their young, particularly if they exhibit high levels of aggression.

Jordan: What is your hope for the future direction of elephant management in captive breeding centers?

Michael:  I have several hopes for the future of elephant management in accredited North American zoos, many of which are expressed in Hutchins, M., Smith, B., and Keele, M. 2008. Zoos as responsible stewards of elephants.  Pp. 285-305 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. They can be summarized as follows:

Courtesy of M. Hutchins
(1)   That zoos are able to improve elephant husbandry and reproduction to the point that the SSP-managed population is sustainable over the long-term. This will likely involve the need to import additional elephants from range countries. In a previous article, I and a co-author discussed ethical and practical considerations for accredited zoos that are contemplating future importations (Hutchins, M., and Keele, M. 2006. Elephant importations from range countries: Ethical and practical considerations for accredited zoos. Zoo Biology 25: 219-233). Achieving sustainability will also involve allowing female elephants to breed earlier and more frequently, so that reproductive abnormalities do not occur. Many adult females currently in the SSP-managed population were purposely prevented from breeding due to the lack of space or holding facilities for adult males. This, in turn, produced a generation of female elephants that may now be incapable of reproduction (Brown, J., Olson, D., Keele, M., and Freeman, E.W. 2004. Survey of the reproductive cyclicity status of Asian and African elephants in North America. Zoo Biology 23:309–321);

(2)   That zoos move toward larger, more naturalistic enclosures (several acres) for elephants that improve public education, while also offering the animals enhanced opportunities to exhibit their full range of natural behaviors.  In particular, captive elephants need more exercise and social stimulation. Given the cost of appropriate animal care and exhibition, this will mean that fewer zoos will be able to keep elephants in the future;

(3)   That, as a result of the larger enclosures and holding areas, elephant social groups can be made larger and that adult females and their female offspring are kept in largely stable groups, as would occur in nature. This would greatly improve the welfare of captive elephants by maintaining social bonds within the matriarchal group;

(4)   That zoos develop a better way of housing and caring for adult males. The establishment of the National Elephant Center should be a major step forward in this regard.   Semen could be sent from males housed at the Center to be used in artificial insemination, instead of each facility having to maintain special male-specific enclosures and care programs. Also young males could be kept together until they reach full sexual maturity, thus enhancing their lives and giving them a chance to learn normal adult male social behavior.  Natural breeding should be allowed to occur as well, especially at the Center and at zoos that have appropriate facilities to hold adult males;

(5)   That all zoos exhibiting elephants move toward protected contact management and positive reinforcement training techniques to enhance elephant welfare and keeper safety;

(6)   That methods of elephant management and exhibition continually become more standardized across institutions through improved keeper training and enhanced requirements for accreditation;

(7)   That continued progress is made in the resolution of elephant health problems (particularly  obesity, endotheliotropic herpes virus, Tuberculosis and foot problems); A peer-reviewed study confirmed that the average life spans of zoo elephants is nearly identical to that of wild elephants for which data are available (Wiese, R.J. and Willis, K. 2004. Calculation of longevity and life expectancy in captive elephants.  Zoo Biology 23: 365-373); but, to a point,  it is possible to do better.

(8)   That the success or failure of innovative exhibit designs, environmental enrichment programs, and other care programs be objectively measured and evaluated through the scientific method, and that the results of this research be used to further move zoo elephant management programs towards best available practices;

(9)   That all zoos, particularly elephant holding facilities, increase their financial commitment to elephant field conservation and research. Zoos could also improve their public education programs regarding the serious conservation challenges facing elephants today, which ironically involve both poaching and overpopulation in national parks and equivalent reserves. A recent article suggests that zoos need not shy away from critical issues in conservation education, even though the messages may be distasteful (Esson, M., and Moss, A. 2013. The risk of delivering disturbing messages to zoo family audiences. The Journal of Environmental Education 44: 79-96).

(10) Last but not least, the zoo-circus relationship needs to become a thing of the past. There is no way that even the best of traveling circuses can provide the kinds of conditions that will allow captive elephants to thrive (Alward, L. 2008. Why circuses are unsuited to elephants. Pp. 205-224 in Wemmer, C. and K. Christen (eds.) Never Forgetting: Elephants, Ecology and Ethics.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). As such, accredited zoos should not tarnish their reputation by exchanging animals with circuses or similar entities.  The use of threatened or endangered species purely for entertainment should be an anathema to serious conservationists. In fact, the Oakland Zoo—an AZA-accredited institution–produced a series of colorful posters opposing the use of wild animals by circuses.



With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: jordan@jordanschaul.com http://www.facebook.com/jordan.schaul https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordanschaul/ www.jordanschaul.com www.bicoastalreputationmanagement.com
  • Micheal Wade

    I wld support any law that wld ban any type of animal circuses! If anyone cld see how cruel the animals r treated behind the scenes u wld feel the same way! I will support anyone that can help with cause! All they have to do is get in contact with me or tell me how i can help!

  • elephantine

    How is it a ‘more balanced perspective’ to interview the director of the AZA – ie someone who also makes his living from elephant captivity? Are you kidding?

  • Mike Carpenter

    I have to say, while I don’t agree with everything Mr. Hutchins says, he is on target with the progress that zoos are making in moving forward with providing more of what elephants need, owning up to the mistakes of the past, and most importantly separating and isolating the circus and other substandard facilities from the group that is doing things better. The AZA should identify all affiliates who aren’t keeping up with progress and standards and severe ties. Only then will the AZA have any credibility. Anyone can see that the circus and other abusers of aninsls are trying to gain credbiliy and acceptance through association. Some day the AZA will have a leader that that puts animal welfare above politics and cronyism…

  • Marcia

    This is a much better piece. Protected contact saves lives and protects animals from abusers. Dr. Hutchins said it and with documentation. Thanks. If zoos are to remain open and have any credibility, they should pay attention Dr. Hutchins’ because as an outsider looking in, his list is dead on, especially regarding number 10. The Oregon Zoo debacle never should have happened. If AZA had any credibility, they would pay attention to number 10 too. The only time the 2 should come together is for research when it benefits all animals health, like curing/treating TB and elephant herpes. It is a work in progress and for the animals sake, I hope it speeds up.

  • roger

    Very interesting article, should be read in conjunction with (http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/03/no-ethical-way-to-keep-elephants-in-captivity/.

    Much improved from the original article http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/23/captive-elephant-management-interview-with-knoxville-zoos-curator-of-elephants/ that created some much controversy.

    Although I do have to take issue with the ideas that the zoo elephant population has to be kept sustainable by importing elephant from range states. Ignoring the fact that this is a contradiction of sustainable, elephant in zoos should be a natural decline with more and more effort being put into make elephant populations sustainable in their home countries, i.e. a reverse as to what is being proposed. Despite what many think it is not too late for wild elephants or indeed the development of large-scale sanctuaries/reserves for ‘captive’ populations. One of the biggest reasons for elephant decline is habitat loss brought about by farming encroachment. Some reports suggest 34% of food is wasted rotting in warehouses, shops and homes implying a massive amount of acreage of cropland that could otherwise be used for wildlife is used to crow plants that ultimately don’t go anywhere but the dump – what an absurd economy we have created for ourselves.

    What the articles have shown is the pressing need for a proper debate and discussion on the appropriate management and keeping of elephants or for that matter any animal in captivity. Such a debate need people to approach the subject with an open mind without feeling they have to defend their existing organization or narrow mind-set. The only true way to find the best solution is by constructively working together, appreciating different viewpoints as well as recognizing common ground.

    It is an impossible question to answer with a great deal of accuracy but we need to put ourselves in the minds of the elephants and ask if they are happy as to truly identify what is best without any preconceptions.

    But using scientific research, behavioural comparison studies the balance of probability suggested the best thing for the elephants is to as near as possible reflect their wild counterparts – namely large enclosures, protected contact, increased herd size etc. – pretty much what is being demonstrated by Ed Stewart (nice article!) at PAWS. (Although for their benefit and to calm down some of their antagonists I would humble suggest they work towards making themselves more transparent.)

    Last year I visited both Los Angeles and San Diego Zoo and for those of you who don’t know that despite being relatively close together they spent over $100Million on two enclosures which is about $10M per elephant just on their housing. The question is could that money be better spent if elephant conservation was foremost in their minds. Personally I think the answer is yes. For less than $10M I could have built 2 state of the art elephant education experiences that would have had no elephant but have people in their droves visiting the centre for a unique and special experience, that would have engaged them much more on conservation issues. With the remaining $90M I could have shipped all the elephants to India or Africa having brought a huge area of land for a unique reserve where they and other elephants can live out their lives in a natural and peaceful settings. A reserve by the way that would have brought jobs and security for local communities, provide a truly educational experience for local and international visitors that had no impact on the elephant activities.

    Let’s start working together collectively and start to make a real difference.

  • Unknown Trainer

    I applaud this comment, Doc: “…the zoo-circus relationship needs to become a thing of the past. ” My question to you then, is, where was this kind of thinking when you were in a position to do something about it? The culture in AZA is broken — the beaters still hold the keys to elephant policies (BTW, putting up a barrier does not make your program “positive reinforcement”) and the Directors have no apparent interest in reigning them in. At the current rate of evolution in the AZA, zoo elephants will become extinct as the organization protects the dinosaurs who run and oversee archaic programs.

  • Maggie

    Every time I hear some “elephant expert” from a zoo or circus, there is always the discussion about how the amount of space makes little to no difference to an elephant. These “elephant experts” also downplay the importance of elephant families staying together. Finally, they explain abnormal behavior (head-bobbing, rocking, foot shuffling, etc.) as normal behaviors, when such behavior is never seen in the wild – NEVER!!

    But when I hear from elephant experts who have spent decades studying wild elephants, they always seem to have the opposite opinion – that elephants need vast amounts of space to flourish, and families are very close and have extremely important relationships with one another. Since head-bobbing and rocking behavior are never seen in the wild, the wild elephant experts correctly identify this as an abnormal behavior which is only seen in animals (many species) in unsuitable captive environments (and never in the wild, no matter the species).

    Who do we believe – the “circus/zoo elephant expert” with a bull hook in one hand and a paycheck in the other, whose very job rests on an elephant that is forced to comply with the wishes of humans, or the actual elephant expert who has witnessed and documented decades of actual natural elephant behavior while living very modestly.

  • Michael Hutchins

    Thanks for the comments. Much appreciated. I have couple of comments in response. I found the statements from “elephantine” (obviously an animal activist) most interesting, since he/she apparently did not even read the text. I haven’t worked for AZA for nearly a decade, so felt that I could give a balanced and objective perspective on this issue. I do not therefore “make a living from elephant captivity” as he/she contends. In fact, when I worked for AZA (not as its executive director, but as its director of conservation and science), my primary focus was on building the conservation and scientific contributions of AZA member institutions, which I believe was accomplished. AZA members now collectively invest over $130 million annually in such activities and publish hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, contributing to our knowledge about wildlife. I know from personal experience that the vast majority of people who work in these institutions care deeply about conservation and the individual animals they manage. This is a great example of activists’ rush to judgment before having all the facts. It does not help with their credibility.

    Roger, the idea that the money spent on elephant exhibits and care programs should be “redirected” to in situ elephant conservation is a common one, but unrealistic. Funds for constructing zoo exhibits typically come from municipal or county governments or local private foundations focused specifically on local residents’ education and/or family recreation. It is highly unlikely that these funds would be ever spent on elephant conservation in range countries under any circumstances. However, having quality elephant facilities in place allows accredited zoos to educate the urban public, conduct valuable research, and raise money for in situ conservation, which I think we all agree is a good thing.

    There is no reason why North American zoos couldn’t ethically import limited numbers of elephants for the SSP program if they can continually improve elephant management and care and if the animals in question are scheduled for culling. Despite the fact that elephants are under siege from poachers in many areas of their range, there are also many instances where there are still too many elephants in national parks and equivalent reserves and/or they are in direct conflict with humans. Their overpopulation impacts many other species of both fauna and flora and is incompatible with broader goals for biodiversity conservation. I once addressed this issue in article called “Better off dead than captive bred?” Some animal activists’ had stated that they would rather see elephants killed than brought into professionally managed zoos. I could not disagree more. Rather than being culled (either by poachers or local people), I would rather see selected elephants living and contributing to education, conservation and science–that is, serving as true ambassadors for their species. This is all possible, as long as progress in zoo elephant management continues to be made. Let’s keep an open mind, look at the big picture, and do what’s best for the animals, both in accredited zoos and in nature. Demonizing our foes is a form of propaganda, not a rational discussion about a complex issue. Do zoos need to continually question and evaluate their practices and reason for being? Absolutely, as should all human institutions. Does zoo elephant management need to get better? Yes. Is there still great variation in the elephant programs at AZA member zoos? Yes, but substantial progress is being made. We are in a period of rapid change and if we keep arguing and fail to work together, I see little hope for the future. Let’s not fiddle around while Rome is burning.

  • Tory Braden

    Interviewing any AZA Director, former or current, is like interviewing Himmler. He will justify his captive concentration camps for whatever misguided and illogical reason. This is reflected in the AZA granting a variance to the San Antonio Zoo to keep Lucky alone in a pitiful, boring, stifling enclosure. Some of the same doltish words were spewed by the worst zoo director in the US that reflects the attitude here, “In the wild, the only reason they walk is to eat and drink,” McKusker said. “So it’s not like they have some fascination with walking.” The clincher from this “esteemed colleague” is his what he has foisted on elephants in his wretched zoo, “They don’t do a lot.” Of course they don’t “do a lot,” elephants live lives of extreme boredom in the same small place day after day and no amount of phony “enrichment” will change that.

    McCusker believes “moving the creature will kill her” (completely unscientific, and the AZA line that seems to be applying to more and more elephants starting with Lucy in Edmonton), so he concludes that he is just going to let her die in the zoo. How reprehensible to those of us traumatized by watching these magnificent animals die slow aching deaths of arthritis. And die of osteomyelitis Lucky probably will, since stubborn McKusker states, “And for one elephant, it (his wretched enclosure) doesn’t need expanding.”

    When will common sense occur to these “experts?” As a retired Physician Assistant it is a basic medical fact for any body that it must exercise its limbs to get the blood flowing in order to keep the limb healthy. And for an elephant it is genetically programmed for, if not miles to keep the blood circulating, it is certainly tens of acres. Besides maybe they just like to take a stroll just like any other animal likes to explore.

    The idea of “esteemed colleagues” brings me back to Himmler, who as we know he was considered “esteemed” by his colleagues too. It is debased thinking to take away the freedom of an animal, torture it emotionally and physically, just for the viewing public. Saying this is educational is like saying an alien would learn about normal humans by studying humans in prison and come to the conclusion the prisoners are normal examples of the species. What is traumatic to not only the animal whose freedom and life is stolen, is the trauma it imposes to those with compassion who must witness the incarceration and rape of these hapless beings.

    Quotes from article: Lucky In Limbo at San Antonio Zoo by Brian Chasnoff, May 7, 2013

  • Tory Braden

    Either the NEC is lying to the public or Mr. Hutchinson is misleading – again. The NEC swears they are not going to breed there. But one would never put it past the lure of those money-making baby elephants to change one’s mind. Though the FL weather is better than inappropriate freezing climates, I would also like to know what they are going to do with all those elephants during a hurricane.

  • Ofir Drori

    Let me get this straight – so the one who earns money from caged elephants, gives us the “balanced” view that caging elephants is actually great for them…
    Like asking the tobacco companies id cigarettes are good for our health.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”
    Upton Sinclair (1878 – 1968)

  • Michael Hutchins

    I don’t know what’s in the water out there, but this is the second time I have been likened to a Nazi by radical animal rights activists, who once again, did not read the material. I am very surprised that National Geographic would allow Mr. Bradon’s personal attack to be published. First, my name is Hutchins, not “Hutchinson” and I was never Executive Director of AZA, which is the first clue you were not paying attention. Second, I would never condone the keeping of lone female elephants–at San Antonio or elsewhere. As I pointed out in my interview, elephants are highly social and require social interaction for their welfare to be maximized. I have no idea why an exception was granted in this case. Given the specific circumstances, it may have been the best option for this particular animal. The devil is in the details. Third, I have spent my entire life dedicated to wildlife conservation and science after spending over a decade in university education . But, now as a result of the Internet, everyone is suddenly an expert, whether they have any credentials or relevant experience or not. I find this highly problematic and I hope others do too. Disagree with me sure–but you don’t know me, so don’t question my motives or my integrity. As I said, the first rule of propaganda is to dehumanize the “enemy.” However, I refuse to be dehumanized or categorized by you for having a well-documented point of view. If you believe that newer exhibits like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, are “concentration camps” for elephants then all I can say is that I doubt if you have ever visited these institutions. In fact, have you ever cared for elephants yourself or been directly involved in such programs?

  • Unknown Trainer

    Michael, still hoping you’ll tell us why you didn’t speak up when you were an AZA Director. Were you afraid of speaking out against the circus’ representation on the Elephant Taxon Advisory Group Steering Committee?

  • Michael Hutchins

    Unknown Trainer: Have you ever read the detailed Elephant Planning Initiative document I wrote for AZA with Brandie Smith in 1999? I organized and moderated a series of meetings, which included 50 elephant experts from zoos, elephant field biologists, zoo architects, and even zoo critics to discuss various aspects of zoo elephant management and conservation and to make recommendations for the future. In the resulting report, we clearly laid out the choices (options) in a wide variety areas ranging from enclosure size, to animal training to the zoo-circus relationship (and the costs and benefits of each), which were distributed to AZA elephant-holding institution directors and the AZA Board. As facilitators of the process, we did not feel that it was our role to make decisions for the directors, but rather to present them with enough information that intelligent, well-informed decisions could be made. But, as they say, “you can bring the camel to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Some of these options were adopted at the time and some were not. Just like Congress, AZA works through a democratic process, which means there is a diversity of opinion and progress is therefore often slow, especially when the suggested reforms will be costly and do not coincide with everyone’s world view. However, that being said, I’ve been a long-time advocate of protected contact management for elephants, and that made me some enemies, particularly among old school zoo elephant and circus trainers. I openly advocated for PC management at an American Veterinary Medical Association Annual Conference in 2003, where I gave a keynote speech focused the ethical arguments for keeping wildlife in accredited zoos. I got a lot of flack for my statements concerning the liability risks associated with free contact management. The timing for a sea change in zoo elephant management in AZA seems to be now, and a lot of positive things are happening. But, I believe the initial impetus for this was that planning effort in the late 1990s.

  • Michelle

    Mr. Schaul
    Your attempt to put a non-bias and balanced piece together is to have a former director of the AZA tell the other side of the story (w an elephant trainer on the ‘other side’). Do you know much about animal captivity, how they are ‘handled’, historically beaten and reminded of beatings w bullhooks in order to ‘stay in line’ and not act like the wild animals they once were and that is intrinsically inside of them? The AZA is an archaic organization that is not respected by animal lovers/activists and it is just now that they are outlawing the bullhook and ‘free contact’ btn elephants and trainers. Please go and speak w a variety of ele behavioral researchers. THose who stand up for those animals in captivity that are mere shells of their wild counterparts.
    Thank you.

  • Moon

    I just love animals! And I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in PETAAsiaPacific.com, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: https://www.facebook.com/FreeMali. She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? 🙁 Please Help Her!

  • Carrie Cook

    With all due respect Mr. Hutchins, labeling animal activists “radical”, is, in fact, a way of dehumanizing and dismissing them. History, as always, will be the judge. In my humble opinion, the “radical” people concerned with the rights of non-human animals (for surely as a scientist, you agree that humans are animals as well) today will be looked upon no differently than the “radical” abolitionists or the “radicals” who believed early on that animals were capable of complex emotions. Wild animals belong in the wild. Even if we’ve left little of it for them. Carrie Cook – former graphics manager, Dallas Zoo

  • Anil

    This is the promised balanced perspective? This is like balancing an interview with a tobacco corporation executive with that of a tobacco farmer. They both essentially want the same thing – no change in the smoking laws.

    I would advise NG not to cheapen a debate by this kind of effort. Find a true elephant expert who’s only goal is elephant welfare, and nothing else. Mr Hutchins is definitely not that. Because if he was – he would have been completely against elephants in circuses at a minimum, and phasing out tiny zoo exhibits at a maximum. That is not the case.as I see it.

    And I am amazed at the chutzpah of people like him who seem to have it all figured out – including how much space the elephant needs. How much space do you need, Mr Hutchins? Would you be alright to be forever confined to your house, however large it might be?

    Yes, you can dismiss us – the compassionate folks – as radicals and animal activists. The fact is we are proud to be called that – that means our only agenda is the welfare and protection of these animals. And that is a badge of honor, sir.

  • Michael Hutchins

    In response to a few of these comments. I haven’t worked for AZA for more than 10 years, having graduated onto other aspects of wildlife science and conservation. However, I still respect what some committed, accredited zoos do for wildlife conservation. It may surprise people to know that I do not support elephants being kept in circuses or in small, inadequate enclosures at any zoo, accredited or not. Animal activists are often quick to be critical without really doing their research. That is part of the problem. They should read my writings on these subjects before passing judgement.

  • Diego

    I’m staying with the last points of the interview, which are basically equivalent to saying trash zoo’s, they do not do what they say they do.

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