Asian Elephants in the Wild:
Natural Habitat: Grasslands, tropical forests, and dry forests of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malay Peninsula, Maynmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Natural Conditions for Elephants: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acres to roam within a complex elephant community of all ages and both sexes, the ability to choose among social partners and/or choose to be alone, as well as the freedom to engage in natural behaviors such as foraging, dusting, mud wallowing, bathing, resting, playing, and socializing. (Poole & Granli, 2009).
In her declaration, filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2008, in support of the plaintiff’s case in Leider v. City of Los Angeles, Dr. Joyce Poole stated: “[T]he current and proposed exhibits at the Los Angeles Zoo cannot and will not be able to provide a healthy and humane environment for any of their elephants, regardless of how many millions of dollars they spend to make the area look nice to human observers.”
Effects of Captivity:
1. Physical health issues including shortened life spans, arthritis and joint problems, obesity, foot problems, oral health problems, reproductive issues, failure to thrive, skin diseases, nutritional diseases, and other diseases such as tuberculosis and endotheliotropic elephant herpes virus. (See, Kaufman & Martin, 2009, for a full discussion of health problems plaguing elephants in captivity).
“Captive elephants in North America frequently exhibit a number of illnesses that are either not experienced at all by their wild counterparts, or not experienced at the same frequency. These diseases therefore create a lack of well-being in elephants that is a direct consequence of captivity.” (Kaufman & Martin, 2009, p. 71).
2. Psychological stress and trauma caused by capture, loss of space and relationships, isolation, and lack of self-determination, evidenced by loss of appetite, depression, apathy, self-harming, infanticide, and stereotypic behaviors such as bobbing, swaying, and rocking. These behaviors are not seen in the wild. (See, Bradshaw, 2009, for a full discussion of psychological problems of elephants in captivity).
“Captive conditions are creating a population of psychobiologically impaired elephants, many of whom are likely to be candidates for PTSD and a suite of other tenacious psychological, emotional and physical ailments.” (Bradshaw, 2009, p. 63).
Alternatives to Captivity:
There are Elephant Sanctuaries around the world (currently two in the United States) that are devoted to providing a permanent, safe haven for elephants that are victims of captivity and/or the entertainment industry. While Sanctuary can never replace life in the wild, and in no way endorses or justifies captivity, it does provide a space where elephants can live out their remaining life with some degree of security, peace, and dignity. Carol Buckley, founder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, cites “three key requirements for success: multi-hundred-acre diverse habitat where elephants are allowed to roam freely; free–choice access to lush and abundant species-appropriate vegetation; and social groupings of a minimum of five individuals.” (Buckley, 2009, p. 194).
The Los Angeles Zoo claims that the Elephants of Asia Exhibit provides valuable information and education regarding the conservation of wild elephants to the public. However, elephant experts agree that “Whether visitors see zoo elephants indoors or outdoors, most elephant exhibits teach the public very little, if anything, about elephants’ biology, social system, complex, communicative abilities or their unequalled physical strength and endurance.” (Kane, 2009, p. 95).
Educational alternatives to exhibiting wild elephants in unnatural conditions could include:
**IMAX theater, surround sound presentations that allow the viewer to experience being part of a wild African or Asian elephant community**
**Live video feed from elephant sanctuaries and/or national parks of elephants engaging in natural behaviors such as foraging, bathing, mud wallowing, dusting, and socializing in family groups in a more natural habitat**
**Animatronic exhibits and/or computerized interactive exhibits that would engage children and provide accurate information regarding wild elephants and the current dangers to their existence, as well as the sordid history of elephant captivity around the world**