• Becci Pigeon

Could the UK government ban elephants in zoos?

Updated: Jun 29

Have you heard the news? According to Freedom for Animals, there's some possibility that the UK government is considering a ban on elephants in zoos in the future. This would indeed be a major move for animal welfare: for more than a decade now, zoos all around the world have been phasing out their elephant exhibits in light of the fact that even compared to other animals, elephants suffer significantly in captivity. (Of course, if the UK government really is concerned about animal welfare, the zoo industry as a whole will be banned, along with many others...)

According to the anonymous government source:

Once the current load of elephants die out we will say you can't replace them. It's impossible to keep them in conditions where they are happy, the space is too small. [...] It's very likely we are going to say you can't make elephants happy in zoos, we should instead be focusing on elephant conservation in areas that have elephants.

This proposed tactic--funding the protection of many wild elephants instead of spending enormous amounts of money to keep just a few unhappy ones in captivity--lines up precisely with the advice that experts have given for years.

But how do we know that elephants find captivity 'torturous'? The evidence is abundant. Here are just a few facts:

  • Elephants in zoos die decades earlier than those living in the wild. A survey comparing the records of 4,500 African elephants both in the wild and in captivity found that the median lifespan of a wild elephant is 56 years; the median lifespan of a captive elephant, just 16.9. Asian elephants appeared to fare even worse, suffering higher rates of infant mortality than their African relatives. Researchers have suggested that stress and obesity are the main culprits of these early deaths, concluding that 'bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability.'

  • Other chronic conditions, like tuberculosis, foot sores and infections, herpes, and joint disorders, have been known to be common in captive elephants (but not wild ones!) for many years now. Captive elephants breed spectacularly poorly and when they do manage to breed, sometimes even kill their babies.

  • Elephants and many other zoo animals suffer from a captivity-specific mental illness called 'zoochosis'. This refers to a range of psychological problems, known as stereotypies, brought on by the stresses of captivity and the animals' inability to express their natural behaviours. It is not seen in wild animals. (Learn more about how we cause disability in our fellow animals.) In the wild, elephants travel 50 miles a day in the company of their large herds; in captivity, lonely elephants pace endlessly, bob their heads, chew at the bars of their enclosures and rhythmically sway to and fro. A study carried out by the University of Oxford found that 40% of zoo elephants experience zoochosis. Some are even given medications to help them cope.

Indeed, the Belfast Zoo keeps elephants...but for how much longer?

In the meantime, elephants should be kept out of zoos--and so should we! Rather than gawking at captive zoo animals, why not meet rescued animals up close at one of Ireland's many wonderful farmed animal sanctuaries? Zoocheck has some other suggestions here!

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