A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Inside the World of Zoo Elephants

When Belle the elephant gave birth to baby Packy at the Portland Zoo in April 1962, people came from around the world and lined up for half a mile to see the newborn. Life magazine devoted an 11-page spread to the event. The youngster was an international sensation.

As Michael J. Berens of the Seattle Times describes it:

The public seemed to feel a unique connection to elephants, gentle giants who exhibit many humanlike qualities. Elephants live in families, exhibit memory and possess surprising self-awareness, such as recognizing themselves in a mirror. They experience grief and love, pain and fear.

Little Packy was everybody’s baby, and attendance at the Oregon Zoo soared as visitors from all over the world waited in half-mile-long lines to see him. Cash receipts skyrocketed, and so did donations.

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Photo by Benjamin Benschneider/Seattle Times

Belle had been sent to Portland from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo as part of a sharing agreement and it would take almost 40 years for Seattle to produce its own baby elephant.

As part of their effort to have one of their elephants give birth, the Woodland Park Zoo decided to send Chai, who had been sent as a gift from Thailand, to the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., to be bred. As soon as she arrived there, the shy, submissive female rebelled at what was happening to her. But she was soon forced into compliance with the use of bullhooks and other devices.

The Springfield zoo was harboring something even more dangerous, too: a virus that Chai could easily bring back with her. But management in Seattle decided that “the pluses outweighed the minuses,” and they thought they were in the clear when Chai returned, pregnant, and gave birth to Hansa, even though they knew that the elephant herpes virus can remain dormant for years before surfacing. Which is exactly what happened. Six years later, one night, Hansa began hemorrhaging internally and was found lying dead next morning.

The zoo was not alone in this risky negligence; the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was complicit. And that brings us to the core of this excellent series of articles in the Seattle Times:

The AZA was desperate to produce elephants, hoping to reverse or at least slow an alarming decline in the number of the animals in American zoos.

Publicly, the zoo industry was claiming — and continues to claim today — that “elephants are thriving inside zoos.” It’s a message that AZA officials have delivered repeatedly to lawmakers and regulators, trumpeted in news releases, and highlighted in a recent national marketing campaign.

But they know it’s not true. And it never has been.

The two articles by Berens, along with video, photos, explanatory graphics, and a side article, give what is probably the best, easy-to-read picture of what’s going on behind the scenes as the zoo industry struggles to keep breeding elephants and to keep the elephants alive so that people will keep coming to the zoos.

This accompanying video gives a brief summary, and is well worth watching:

But take the time to read the articles by Berens, and look at the graphics.


Photo by Steve Ringman

In Part One, he tells the stories of Hansa and his mother Chai, of Belle and her son Packy, of how Packy’s father, Thonglaw, was forced to mate with his daughters, and of how Chai was subjected to more than 100 uncomfortable, humiliating, artificial insemination procedures.

In Part Two, Berens tells the stories of other elephants, like Maggie at the Alaska zoo, who endured endless frigid winters locked in a pen where she developed joint diseases and literally collapsed to the ground and had to be lifted back up to her painful feet with a crane.

Maggie’s story has a happy ending. Today, she’s living and thriving at the PAWS sanctuary in California with her new pals, Annie from Milwaukee and Wanda from Detroit. At all three of these zoos, officials had finally conceded that living at their zoos could never work for these intelligent, sensitive tropical animals.

zoo-elephants-life-death-120412The AZA, of course, opposed these transfers – just as they are bitterly opposed to the transfer of three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to PAWS, and have been throwing up roadblocks to the city’s decision for more than a year.

Berens tells how, earlier this year, Judge John L. Segal poured scorn on the attempts of the Los Angeles Zoo to defend their treatment of three elephants. And he writes about the new lives of the elephants who go to PAWS:

At sanctuaries, elephants behave in ways rarely seen in zoos. They move as a herd in a straight line over long distances. They stop to play. They often take midday naps by lying on the dusty ground wherever they can find shade. On the hottest days, they might wander to a pond and submerge their massive bodies.

Also striking is what is not seen: elephants standing still while repetitiously rocking their heads or shuffling their feet for hours at a time — a common behavior among zoo elephants.

… All three of Woodland Park’s elephants — Chai, Bamboo and Watoto — have exhibited this behavior.

Berens explores the shady relationships that AZA zoos have forged with elephant profiteers in Africa. He talks with Pat Derby, the founder of PAWS, who tells him that “elephants come here to die” – meaning that the sanctuary only receives elephants like Maggie who are literally on their last legs. But Maggie is, in fact, thriving – doubtless to the extreme annoyance of the AZA.

After Derby tossed bulging paper bags of vegetables over the fence, Maggie shambled down a grassy hill to get at them.

Outside the fence, PAWS elephant keeper Michelle Harvey monitored Maggie’s progress. She had been her keeper at the Alaska Zoo. Harvey said she left her Alaska job so she and Maggie would never be apart.

Maggie’s feet are healthy now, Harvey said, so she no longer collapses.

There’s more, including this interactive graphic of Thonglaw’s family, and a separate story of how a baby elephant, born last week at the Portland Zoo, is destined for a life in the entertainment industry since he remains the property of the supremely abusive company Have Trunk Will Travel – yes, the one whose “training” procedures were caught on video by Animal Defenders International.

But that’s another story …