The Oregon Zoo has had 26 live elephant births over the past 50 years, with 19 elephants dying at the zoo.
As Portland Monthly reports, the zoo’s breeding program is an effort to save the endangered Asian elephant species, which is threatened by habitat fragmentation and other issues in their range countries. However, critics of the breeding program claim that the zoo is only interested in breeding more elephants to fill their cages and bring in visitors, and that the animals suffer mentally and physically in captivity, reports the Associated Press.
Some of the concerns raised by critics are the deaths, diseases, and miscarriages that occur in zoos. Lily, the youngest elephant in the herd, died in 2018 from elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV), which has caused about half of the deaths of young elephants in zoos since it was first identified in 1995, KOIN reports. Lily was almost six years old, and her death was another blow to a zoo industry trying to infuse new life into its elderly population.
Chendra, an orphaned elephant that was shot and blinded in one eye before being relocated to the zoo, and the only Borneo pygmy elephant in North America, was expected to give birth to a calf. However, she was found to have tuberculosis and was quarantined while receiving treatment. When she was eight months pregnant, vets detected a drop in her reproductive hormones. A few weeks later, Chendra delivered a dead fetus, which was unrelated to the disease.
Elephant welfare advocates believe that elephants are too intelligent, too compassionate, and too large to live in captivity. They claim that it is inhumane to breed more elephants doomed to exhibits. However, zoos argue that their captive counterparts are a testament to conservation, as only 15% of the original habitat for Asian elephants remains, and their security is compromised by the rapid encroachment of palm oil plantations and other human development.
Critics are concerned that zoos are not trying to save the elephants, but rather themselves. The Oregon Zoo’s first baby, Packy, arrived in 1960, drawing international attention and tripling attendance that year. Since then, over two dozen elephants have been born at the zoo, but concerns have been raised about the welfare of elephants in American zoos, with mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity.
The intelligence of elephants have been increasingly documented in recent years, causing some to argue that keeping them in captivity is inhumane, reports Scientific American. The Oregon Zoo has been at the center of this debate, as it has tried to use animal welfare science to make its elephant habitats more intellectually stimulating and spacious. Other studies argue that the zoo should close its elephant exhibit altogether and move the animals to sanctuaries, where they would be free to roam and socialize as they would in the wild.
In Defense of Animals has listed the Oregon Zoo on its “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants” at least 11 times now, reporting that “All five Oregon Zoo elephants have varying degrees of captivity-related conditions, including chronic diarrhea, obesity, and assorted ear, eye, and leg injuries. They also suffer from toe fractures and foot disease, which proves deadly to many captive elephants via infection and abscesses.”
At the recommendation of the AZA, The Oregon Zoo added a new sand substrate to the elephant habitats. But, this doesn’t make up for the stress of living in a confined space. The elephants’ foot problems have continued to worsen. And now, elephants at the zoo are ingesting the sand, which puts them in danger of fatal intestinal blockages, In Defense of Animals reports.
The zoo has been working to improve the welfare of its elephants through various means.
For example, it has built a 160,000-gallon pool for the elephants to swim in, and created “enrichment bags” that require the elephants to reach to eat. Former Zoo director Don Moore has also emphasized the importance of captive elephant populations as “insurance populations” that can be reintroduced into the wild if necessary. He has argued that zoos should focus on habitat conservation, animal welfare, and education, all of which can help ensure a better future for wildlife, Portland Monthly reports.
Gay Bradshaw, founder of the Kerulos Center for Nonviolence, has been urging the Oregon Zoo to free Chendra. However, the zoo has argued that releasing Chendra into the wild would be dangerous and would sever the bonds she has formed with her keepers and other elephants at the zoo.
Despite these challenges, there is growing evidence of elephants’ intelligence and emotional capacity. For example, elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror, an ability that is linked to their capacity for self-awareness and empathy, Baanchang Elephants reports. They also mourn their dead and form tight-knit, matriarchal herds that are highly protective of their young.
A tragic incident in Northern Thailand, where about a dozen elephants fell to their deaths, highlights the dangers these animals face even in the wild, Science Alert reports. Photos of the area show gray, lifeless objects coming out of the turbulent river below. Although no one witnessed the incident, some speculate that the elephants might have been forced into the river by a flash flood. However, others believe that a calf slipped at the waterfall and the other elephants went over the edge one by one in an attempt to save it.
The plight of elephants at the Oregon Zoo is a complex issue that involves balancing the animals’ welfare with the need for captive populations as a form of conservation. While the zoo has made efforts to improve the elephants’ living conditions, critics argue that it is not enough and that these animals would be better off in sanctuaries. However, the zoo has also pointed out that releasing these animals into the wild can be dangerous and that keeping them in captivity can help ensure their survival in the long term.
Ultimately, the best way to protect elephants is through habitat conservation, animal welfare, and education, all of which can help ensure a better future for these magnificent creatures.
Sign our petition and ask the Oregon Zoo to improve its elephant habitats or release these animals to rescue facilities or sanctuaries!
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