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An Elephantine Obesity Epidemic


We already know that most of the major health problems for humans – heart disease, many cancers, diabetes, arthritis, etc. – are the product of an unhealthy lifestyle. The same is true for elephants at zoos.

And a new study, commissioned by a zoo, concludes that unless radical action is taken, the situation is so dire that elephants will be extinct at zoos within a few decades.

The study flies in the face of what zoos keep telling us about zoos being the last refuge of elephants, protecting them from the ever-increasing dangers of living in the wild.

“In 50 years, there will be no more elephants in zoos.”

The facts show the absolute opposite: that elephants at zoos are suffering from an epidemic of obesity that causes heart disease, arthritis and infertility. As a result, fewer and fewer baby elephants are being bred and the zoo population is dwindling away.

The new study, which focuses on the metabolic health of zoo animals, was led by Kari Morfeld, a wildlife endocrinologist and head of the new Wildlife Conservation Research Center at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

In presenting her research, Morfeld said, “In the next 50 years, the captive population will not be viable and will be extinct. In 50 years, there will be no more elephants in zoos.”

Already, according to the study, 45 percent of elephants in U.S. zoos are infertile. And for every five zoo elephants that die, only three are born. That makes the population unsustainable.

The two top causes of elephants dying at zoos are heart disease and arthritis.

The two top causes of elephants dying at zoos are heart disease and arthritis. Both of these are lifestyle diseases, caused largely by two factors:

One, the elephants spend most of every day, and most of their lives, just standing around – often on concrete. Elephants in the wild, by comparison, are constantly on the move as they travel through the plains and forests to new feeding grounds and watering holes.

Two, a zoo diet is all wrong for elephants. Morfeld explains that in the wild, they eat a wide range of foods from grass to tree leaves to bamboo to bark. In captivity they eat fruits and grains and high-quality hay full of calories. And they don’t have to walk anywhere to find them.

obese-elephant-1-061113Since it’s difficult to put wild elephants and zoo elephants on a scale to weigh them, let alone wrap a tape measure around their waists, Morfeld took hundreds of photos of the back ends of elephants, and studied hundreds more, both in the wild and at zoos, to develop a relative health score, with thin elephants getting a 1, and fattest elephants getting a 5.

Her research showed most elephants in the wild coming in as 2’s, while almost half of all elephants in zoos are 5′s.

As well as causing heart disease and arthritis, obesity also destroys fertility. The research shows that  only 5 percent of elephants whose rating is 5 on Morfeld’s scale have reproductive cycles at all, compared with 50 percent of 4’s and 100 percent of 3’s. (Only two captive elephants in North America have body conditions of 2 – so there aren’t enough of them to have a meaningful study of their reproductive abilities.)

Far from conserving elephants, the zoos are actually killing them.“Zoos spend millions of dollars on elephant facilities with no background on what is the best facility for elephants’ health and welfare,” Morfeld told the Lincoln Journal Star. “Humans have a choice about their lifestyle. We give elephants a lifestyle. It is only fair to give them a healthy lifestyle. So far, we are failing them. Our responsibility – if we house animals in zoos – is to give them the best life possible.”

Meanwhile, most zoos continue to insist that the elephants they hold in captivity are healthy and happy, and that they are doing elephants a great service by leading the way in “conservation” and “education.”