(ANIMAL WELFARE) TORONTO — Three aged African elephants will leave a Toronto zoo and move to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas, California. With warmer weather and acres of land, Thika, Iringa, and Toka will live much more comfortably while coping with arthritis, cracked feet, and other injuries accumulated from tight, concrete enclosures. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is extremely unhappy with the decision. Why? Loss of profit, and nothing more. Read on for the why these elephants need a warm, free-range home, and the greedy negative reaction of the AZA. — Global Animal
Lulu, a retired zoo elephant, enjoying her free-range life at the PAWS Sanctuary in California. Photo Credit: dolphin2421 via Flickr

Psychology Today, Gay Bradshaw, PhD

From today’s headlines: “Toronto Zoo Loses Accreditation Over Plan to Ship Elephants to Sanctuary.” According to the report, the Toronto city council agreed to send three aged elephants from zoo to the highly regarded sanctuary, Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) in San Andreas, California. In response, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) considered the decision a violation of its standards and penalized the Canadian facility by nullifying its standing of accreditation, held since 1977. 

From the perspective of elephant welfare, this retaliatory response is startling. Sanctuary is clearly in the best interest of the three African elephants, Thika, Iringa and Toka. Unlike the zoo quarters in frigid, urban Toronto, the western U.S. sanctuary offers a more temperate climate for elephant residents who graze in the desultory peace of California’s gentle gold and green foothills. Covering hundreds of acres, these expansive, natural grounds are a place to heal arthritic joints, cracked feet, and other maladies that accumulate after years of close confinement, concrete, and psychological trauma. Sanctuary guarantees lifetime care with no threat of transfer. Elephants are able to stay in their foreign home and, barring the eventuality of death, remain with their companions for life.

All of this makes an enormous difference to elephant minds and bodies. Modern humans often fail to appreciate the stress that captive elephants endure. For many of us, a transient existence surrounded by concrete and the limited space of apartments, houses, buses, cars, and so forth, is just how we live. But for elephants, it is a prison sentence.

Most elephants in captivity have been kidnapped from their families, often having witnessed the killing of mothers and other relatives. They are then shipped to live alone or with unknown companions for uncertain time. Science has revealed that this incredibly sensitive, conscious, self-aware, highly social, thinking, and feeling being is acutely vulnerable to the trauma of violence, isolation, and artificial living. An elephant’s psychological capacity is comparable, and likely exceeds, that of humans, thereby qualifying for and deserving the same ethical and legal privilege that we demand for ourselves.

Elephants thrive only when they are free among family and community, integral members of the vast floral and faunal communities with whom they have evolved. As renowned elephant healer and founder of Elephant Aid International (EAI) Carol Buckley asserts, sanctuary is still captivity. But in contrast to zoos, sanctuary allows elephants to be elephants in a way they want, in an environment as close to their native habitat as one can make in North America. Notably, sanctuaries only exist to care for those who have been broken in spirit and body from the brutality of the captive trade.

So then, given the obvious improvement in welfare that sanctuary represents, why has the AZA reacted so negatively? The answer is simple. Profit. Elephants are big money for zoos and collaborating research institutions, and zoos can ensure continuing profit by making more elephants via breeding programs. It is these programs that reveal the raw darkness of the captive industry.

AZA openly states that one of its goals is “to establish a sustainable captive elephant herd in North America.” The Pittsburgh Zoo is now involved in an international project, “Project Frozen Dumbo,” an effort to establish North America’s first elephant sperm bank. First, scientists extract semen by masturbating a bull elephant. They then artificially inseminate female elephants. In plain, less euphemistic language, male and female elephants are raped in order to produce more elephants. Chai is one such victim.

Chai is a thirty-two-year-old Asian elephant living in the Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle who has been inseminated 59 times. The procedure involves inserting a probe into Chai’s rectum while a four-meter endoscope is inserted into her vaginal opening. The Zoo’s general curator, Dr. Nancy Hawkes maintains that “[a]rtificially inseminating an elephant is a technique that enhances animal welfare.”. According to Hawkes, the last two decades of failed inseminations occurred because “they were usually just inseminating the bladder.” One can only imagine, with horror, Chai’s experience.

Located in the Land of Liberty’s capitol, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo also has a thriving research program dedicated to increasing captive elephant reproduction. Yet another “puzzlement.” Why are million-dollar programs needed to solve the obvious? Female elephants have a difficult time conceiving in captivity for the same reasons that affect women who are similarly subjected to extreme stress and deprivation in concentration camps. It is a basic fact of life that all adult women, even scientists, should appreciate. 

Beyond profit, other motives have been suggested to explain the impulse to imprison the pacific pachyderm. Former zookeeper Ray Ryan reflects on his experience of zoos’ “culture of violence”:

It’s hard to describe, but when you eventually get control over someone who has no natural control and is so big, well, it makes you feel big. It is a real display of machismo. . . . You could show you were a real man if you could beat down a big powerful animal. And I could always tell who had had a fight with their wife the morning or night before. We have not changed much since cave days. Men are still beating up women, still trying to run the world with domination. And if you notice, all the elephants we work with are females.

Sadly, despite the AZA’s insistence that zoos exist to help elephants and support their welfare, today’s news speaks otherwise. AZA has shown its true colors. As Ray Ryan poignantly notes about the elephants, “Why don’t we just let them be who they are?”

More Psychology Today: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/bear-in-mind/201204/true-colors





  1. “So then, given the obvious improvement in welfare that sanctuary represents, why has the AZA reacted so negatively? The answer is simple. Profit. Elephants are big money for zoos and collaborating research institutions, and zoos can ensure continuing profit by making more elephants via breeding programs. It is these programs that reveal the raw darkness of the captive industry.”

    Really? You weren’t listening! AZA pulled accreditation because the zoo lost control of its animals. The zoo had the decision making process taken away from them by an animal activist who just happens to be a city councillor. That’s the real simple answer.

    As for profits – have you taken a look at how much money elephants earn this sanctuary from donations? In 2011 it was $2,749,441. They didn’t get that for their wolves. Or their tigers. Or their lions. They started asking for donations for the Toronto elephants the moment they thought they were going to get them. They’ve already started asking for donations for the New Zealand elephant who made the news just last Wednesday j- that’s only 4 days ago. This sanctuary is not stupid. It knows how to pull the heart strings of the gullible patrons that support it. It knows that it’s not lions, tigers, bears or wolves that are going to bring in the big money.

    I applaud this sanctuary for wanting to help elephants that have absolutely no where else to go but the Toronto elephants are not 3 of them. The have someplace else to go. Thank goodness the rest of the city council woke up, they just may get to go to Florida after all. Better yet they just may get to stay in Toronto.

  2. AZA didn’t take away accreditation because the elephants were being sent to PAWS. It was taken away because CITY COUNCIL decided to send elephants to PAWS, not the ZOO BOARD. This was a goverance issue, not the elephants being sent to a non-AZA accredited facility. It would be like Student Council telling PTA how to run their organization. It’s two different things and should be run as such. This is why so many zoos have decided to go private, or be run by a society, breaking away from their cities. Because City Council is NOT qualified or SHOULD they be qualified to make decisions on the animals.
    PAWS WAS one of the many institutions being considered at the time. So was the National Elephant Center which is being built in Florida. The fact that the zoo board was not given this task of selecting the new place is why AZA took away accreditation. When Detroit sent it’s elephants to PAWS, they didn’t lose accreditation.
    Also, this whole AI is rape? OMG! That’s actually offensive! Do you have ANY idea of how powerless a victim of rape feels? The utter humiliation involved? To even SUGGEST that zookeepers would torture their animals in such a manner and make the animals feel that way is inconceivable! The animals are trained using rewards and encouragement from zookeepers. They read these animals like a parent reads their own child. Like we can read our pets. Do you even THINK for a moment that if the being they cared for like their child was even slightly uncomfortable that a zookeeper would be okay with going on? Think before you haphazardly say zookeepers are torturing fiends. In the past, it may have been a different story, however I doubt even that, but today'[s zookeepers are charged with giving the utmost care to their animals, through training, enrichment, and positive relationships. POSITIVE relationships. If the elephant felt “raped”, do you really think for a freaking second that they would repeatedly go into the room where the “rape” happens? Would you?
    This article is a disgrace. Get your facts straight and for the love of everything sacred, stop repeating stupid thoughts that you simply hear without discovering the actal truth.