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Elephant Care

Everyone likes elephants. They seem to touch a special spot in the soul of many. People care. People care about their plight in the wild and the threats they face from ivory hunters. It would be a sad and bleaker world without elephants. People care too about how they are kept in captivity, and rightly so.

Where the caring about captive elephant care goes wrong is when one reads or listens too only one side of the story. There are a lot of self styled elephant lovers and experts who condemn the keeping of elephants in zoos without having any real understanding of the issue. Most of these have never worked in zoos or with elephants. Theirs is book knowledge from the wrong books. Much of what they write or read about in newspaper articles or in Facebook groups betrays this lack of understanding and the same myths and lies are recounted.

Elephants are like people. Elephants have their own individual characters and temperaments. Within a captive situation this needs to be considered hand in trunk with its needs as a species.

There are, without a shadow of a doubt some captive elephants which are in urgent need of something different in their welfare. This does not mean that every elephant needs the same though. Nor does it mean that every zoo is bad.

African Elephant

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Consider this. The majority of captive African elephants that were wild born would be dead if it were not for zoos. They were not captured to supply zoos! They were caught as young calves when the rest of their family herd were killed. Their families were killed not out of cruelty but out of kindness.

The African wild is not limitless nor is it free. Our human population continues to grow and encroach upon the remaining wild places. There is nowhere for expanding animal populations to go. This includes the elephants which in spite of the rather long gestation period, breed
very well. It becomes essential to manage wild elephant populations. They need to be culled out, to be shot. Failure to do this would mean there was not enough food to go round and many animals would face a slow lingering painful death from starvation. Management culling is a necessary evil. The only alternative would be via contraception which is impractical.

As intelligent herd animals it was long ago decided that the least stressful way to manage the numbers of elephants is to kill complete family groups rather than select individual animals. It may sound harsh or cruel but is the kindest way to go about a distasteful task. It prevents animals pining. Sometimes the young calves are shot and sometimes they caught and are sold.

There are those who would argue the calves are better off dead. These are the people who consider zoos as prisons and the zoo keepers as prison wardens. These are the people who cannot distinguish a good zoo from a bad zoo and who, in reality know little or nothing about elephants.

Expanding populations of both Elephants and Human Beings mean that the culling of elephants is going to continue. Both compete for space. Such moves are frequently condemned in comments in discussion groups. More often than not such comments show blinkered thinking.

Seeing an elephant in the wild, reading a book or two or even just caring about them does not bestow expertise.

Check out Zoo Territory and The Perfect Zoo Enclosure to learn some more about Territories and enclosures.

Asian Elephant Bull

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In spite of the number of years that zoos have existed they have seen an amazing metamorphosis these past 40 years. There exists a huge divide between good zoos and bad zoos. In the good zoos the science of animal keeping is still on a steep uphill curve. In the bad zoos it still lingers in the menagerie. Meanwhile the good zoos do their best to support in-situ conservation projects along with their own in house ex-situ education, research, and so much more. The elephants in the good zoos are living ambassadors of their species. They can be seen for real, heard for real, smelled for real and sometimes touched for real. This reality touches parts of us that enhances our wonderment and appreciation of these magnificent creatures.

What zoos are not presently about is returning animals to the wild Except in extremely special circumstances this would be a rather pointless exercise. The wild is in a mess. Elephants are being shot to manage, they are being poached and slowly their ranges are being encroached upon. Captive elephants truly are ambassadors of their species. Zoos are still learning to manage them and cooperatively are building up a back up population just in case there is a disaster in the wild. It could happen. It really could happen.

Good Zoos Are Not Prisons

Zoos are not prisons. Zoos (and I mean good zoos) actually genuinely care about the animals they keep. They and the staff who work in zoos are dedicated to the animals in their charge. They know the animals better than those on the outside. They know the problems surrounding the species in the wild. Zoo people have a dedication to duty which has few equals. Elephant keepers are a special group with an especially deep dedication. Destructive criticism from those who have only a fractional grasp of what zoos are about is not only unhelpful but is rather stupid too. Zoos are more than happy to listen to constructive criticism.

It is not necessary to train elephants with cruelty. There is no need to dominate. There was a time when this type of training was 'de rigeur'. This came out of the lumber camps of Asia into the circuses of Europe and into the zoos. Even way back then there were those who trained with kindness. Those who took a heavy hand probably knew no better and not out of malice but ignorance.

Free and Protected Contact

In today's zoos there is a move towards 'protected contact' in elephant management. There is no room for a heavy hand. Whereas there are immense safety advantages to this type of care there are disadvantages too. Probably a happy marriage of the two, 'hands on' and 'hands off' will turn out to be best for both elephant and keeper.

Where 'hands on' is being used then the use of an ankus would be essential. If the ankus had never been invented then it would be necessary to do so and the design would inevitably be the ankus we see today. The ankus is the age old tool used in managing and controlling elephants. It's shape, length, size and style may differ in individual preference. The ankus is not a cruel medieval torture instrument. It is merely an extension of the arm. True enough it has a point on it and a hook, but these are not sharp enough to do any damage because they are not intended for that purpose. Like any tool they can be used incorrectly. A knife can be used to cut bread, to spread butter, to carve soap. Knives can also kill people, as can a screwdriver, or a hammer. In the proper hands an ankus does no more harm than a dogs leash. Those who condemn every keeper who holds an ankus are the same people who put all zoos into the same category.

Elephants whether large or small, good or bad, passive, chilled or disobedient are handled with much greater safety in a 'hands on' situation with an ankus. To suggest the keeper should not use one shows a complete misunderstanding of the captive management of these wonderful creatures. It is extremely doubtful whether Health and Safety would actually allow 'Hands on' working with elephants without an ankus. A properly carried out risk assessment would demand one was in the keepers hands at all times.

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The use of electric goads should be frowned upon and never considered as a tool of use.

An example of Elephant hooks currently used in Kyoto Municipal Zoo in Japan

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Captive Asian Elephants

Captive Asian Elephants are a slightly different case to those from Africa. Asian elephants do not enter Western zoos from the wild. There are no major culls there. Individual rogue animals may be shot. They are still poached of course and this along with habitat destruction are amongst the biggest threats they face. The few elephants that do enter Western zoos from Asia come from other zoos and jungle camps. Captive breeding is a regular occurrence and there are hundreds of captive animals. Releasing these animals into the wild is not just unrealistic but impossible.

Meanwhile there are the so called elephant sanctuaries in Asia who object to elephants being passed on to 'evil' Western zoos. These sanctuaries do not have a monopoly on caring. The sanctuaries are just zoos under another name. Just because a zoo calls itself a sanctuary, or a conservation centre or exotic animal refuge or whatever does bestow some magical knowledge or expertise. The plain old 'zoo' is just the same... staffed by genuine, dedicated, caring staff.

The 'Animal Rights' singular aim to free animals from zoos is more often than not done without a thought or care as to the consequence of their action. At its worse this was shown when mink were released from mink farms. Those mink which were not run over by cars or starved to death in unfamiliar surrounding went on to wreak havoc by killing unsuspecting wildlife. The point is that the Animal rights did not care what happened. The mink were 'free' and that is all that matters. A similar situation existed with elephants in Indian zoos in 2010. The Animal Rights wanted them freed. The Animal Rights had over a period of years become such a nuisance (and a justifiable one in some cases) that they forced the hand of the CZA. They got them to issue a proclamation that all elephants were to be moved out of Indian zoos. It mattered not at all if zoo conditions were good. Such is the blinkered viewpoint of the Animal Rights that anything outside of a zoo setting has to better than anything within a zoo. This is 'mink think'. In others words both illogical and cruel and shows no real understanding or caring about animals.
There is more to be said for improving zoo conditions than sweeping the problem under the carpet by moving them elsewhere. The likelihood is that the conditions for elephants 'freed' from Indian zoos will be worse than anything they have within the zoos. There will be exceptions of course but mainly it will be a case of 'out of sight and out of mind'. The Animal Rights will no doubt congratulate themselves. It is extremely unlikely however that a single one of these elephants will be returned to the wild. A wild that they never came from in the first place.

The wild is not the homogenised, sterilised and cling wrapped version we are served up on television. Yes, yes that is where the animals belong but Animal Rights should recognise that the wild is a cruel and violent place. It is blood, guts, stress and starvation. It is not a Disney movie. If Animal Rights really cared about animals, I mean really cared then they would not be in a hurry to do something that is in reality, very very cruel.

But no some would argue, 'we want them to go to a sanctuary'. Zoos are sanctuaries, sanctuaries are zoos. These are animals in captivity being managed by people. Good zoos are the true sanctuaries. They offer more than a green field or tract of woodland. Zoo sanctuaries are more than space. Space in terms of square feet means a lot more when considered from the point of view of quality rather than quantity. Sanctuaries on the outside of zoos have some very questionable policies.

There is a saying in zoos that the only thing that you can get two elephant keepers to agree upon is what the third one is doing wrong. It may seem like a bit of a joke but there is a great deal of truth in the statement. Elephants are individuals. They like and dislike certain things and this includes people. What works for one keeper will not necessarily work for another.
This is a fact that would not be argued with by anyone who has actually had 'hands on' elephant experience. It doesn't matter if they worked with in elephants in circus, good zoo, bad zoo, sanctuary, rescue centre or logging camp. All elephants are different. Elephant knowledge is not about degrees or certificates, it is about actual work, real practical experience.
Being different means that one solution does not solve a problem. It creates more.

Elephant Shows

I believe that Training and Enrichment are really two sides to the same coin. Intelligent animals need to be trained and so are enriched by the experience. Such training also helps with husbandry and management.

There is a definite plus where certain aspects to this training can take place in front of an audience. If this is accompanied by an educational commentary presented in an entertaining way then Edutainment will take place. People learn best in this way.

I have previously condemned 'Elephant Yoga' where animals are asked to put themselves into some rather awkward looking positions but have had cause to re-think this. Having myself practiced yoga for more than 50 years I know that there are positive physical benefits to that rather odd looking stretch or angle. I think now that elephants would benefit too as I have seen them do some very odd things with their bulky bodies over the years.

There are however Elephant Shows and Elephant Shows. I condemn the circus type of exhibition which causes people to laugh. Far more preferable is an awe of wonderment as people learn.

One show I hated was the one I saw in the Bali Safari and Marine Park. This was pure circus with a brief but unexplained mention of conservation towards the end. In stark contast the elephant show at Taman Safari Indonesia (part of the same company) was an educational gem. I learned later that they also did a circus type show, but I did not see that.


 The sight of any animal in chains is disturbing. This will usually conjure up thoughts of human slavery, curtailment of freedom or the chain gang. Chain posters are often used by the anti-zoo fraternity because they recognise that this is emotional and hard hitting. Chains are still commonly used with elephants and are indeed essential for circus animals. In the modern zoo there has been a shift away from chaining as housing for elephants has improved.

Routine short term chaining of elephants is a valuable aspect of effective 'hands on' management and training. Elephants quickly accept this. This allows for more effective washing down, foot and medical treatment, restraint during bad weather or when urgent building repairs are necessary. Short term is the important part. It is cruel to keep elephants chained up long term. I won't dispute that nor do I suspect would any professional elephant keeper or manager of any good zoo. It is long term chaining which causes the stereotypic swaying that is seen in some animals.

In the good modern zoo buildings must be designed so that long term chaining becomes a thing of the past. The sooner this is implemented the better. If 'hands on' is to be continued then chaining must as well. In itself 'short term' chaining does no harm and as part of daily routine is actually a positive part of training and routine. Chaining can be good and chaining can be bad.

Elephants belong in the wild. Of course they do. There is no argument there. They are wild animals. Those in captivity however are there to stay. It is unlikely that any of these will ever be returned to the wild in the foreseeable future. Elephants are numerous in some places
and in depleted numbers in others. Wherever they are they are under threat. This may be from poachers or encroachment on their territories. Their wild future is not secure.

The wild is a dangerous place. Not just from the dangers posed by man but the natural hazards caused by illness, injury and disease. Elephants starve to death. Young animals are killed purposely or accidentally. Elephants can die long slow painful and lingering deaths. Animals fight, animals are cast out. In fact it could be argued that elephants are better off in a good zoo than they are in the wild.

In a good zoo their every need is taken care of because in a good zoo the staff care. The elephants certainly don't miss the wild as it is unlikely that they have any memory of it. In spite of the well known saying, elephants DO forget and even if they do remember it could be that the memories they do have are not pleasant ones.

The truth can and is manipulated by the various interest groups to the degree that it becomes a lie. The camera does lie. The pen can be poisonous. Facts can twisted into fallacies. It is important to keep an open mind and be prepared to change.

A collection which has a 'zoo' name will receive criticism from elephant interest groups if it uses chains. These same groups will ignore chains being used in a collection which has a 'sanctuary' name. Why? The care is the same. The caring may be better in either either. A 'zoo' which kindly euthanases an elephant which is clearly suffering is heaped with criticism. A 'sanctuary' which prolongs the painful life of a clearly suffering animal is poured with praise.

Just because someone is a game show host, a politician, a pop star or an actor does not give them expertise on elephants. They really know no more than the man in the street. The problem is that they have a soapbox from which to shout and if they shout rubbish, people listen and, sadly, believe.

To quote Richard Dawkins in 'A Devil's Chaplain' "Nature is neither cruel nor kind but indifferent." I could not agree more but indifference to pain, suffering, starvation and slow lingering death is cruel in my eyes. I would go further still and say that anyone who fails to recognise this is not the sort of person who should make judgement on the morality of zoos.

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Stories From The Wonderful Wild

Bamako, Mali - About 21 elephants died of thirst and exhaustion in May in an extension area from the dried Lake Korarou to Aougoundou - 100 km apart - located in the rural district of Gourma, eastern Mali, the National Water and Forestry Directorate disclosed in a report.

According to the report, the 21 elephants, including 13 young males, were part of a herd of 181 elephants in search of water and favourable ecological area.

The document stated that 13 of the elephants died on their way to a favourable area, while eight died around the Aougoundou Lake.

Protected and considered as ecological and cultural heritage, elephants of Gourm a survive decades of uninterrupted drought cycles with the drying up of ponds and lakes resulting from

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Jamshedpur, Sept. 12: It has not yet developed an appetite, but the critically injured baby jumbo getting treated at Tata Steel Zoological Park seems to be out of danger.

But forest officials are undecided whether to let the calf stay at the Tata zoo or shift it to the veterinary hospital at Ranchi’s Birsa Munda zoo. Today, a team comprising regional conservator of forests A.K. Gupta, conservator of forests S.B. Gaikwad and divisional forest officer A.T. Mishra, directed by principal chief conservator of forests A.K. Singh, visited Tata zoo to review the calf’s condition and check if it needed better treatment.

Forest officials from Ichagarh block in adjoining Seraikela-Kharsawan district had rescued the two-and-half-year-old elephant on September 2, after villagers had grievously injured the animal separated from its herd. After 10 days of medical attention, the 6-inch deep wounds inflicted by spears and pickaxes are on the mend. Maggots on the wounds, which had been Tata zoo vet Manik Palit’s main

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Murka doesn’t trust humans. It’s no wonder.

The two-year-old baby elephant had a spear lodged in her forehead when she was found hiding in thick bush. Murka charged anyone who came near. After much effort, veterinarians removed the weapon, leaving a large hole in her forehead.

When we saw Murka at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a sanctuary in Nairobi for endangered species like elephants and rhinos, she was isolated from the others. A blanket had been tied around her in preparation for the cold Nairobi night. This can be a dangerous task given her hate-on for humans. Standing as tall as a man’s chest, this baby can still be dangerous.

The gash on Murka’s head reminded us of the signs in airports warning travellers of ivory bans. But this young elephant’s tusks haven’t even started to show.

Murka isn’t the victim of traditional poachers. She’s caught in a battle with humans for dwindling land. It’s a battle worsened by poverty and it threatens elephant populations worldwide. But you won’t see this issue mentioned at customs lines.

"One of the major factors in Kenya is too many people with not enough land," says Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the conservationist who runs the sanctuary named after her late husband. "Elephants need space and are fast finding

  • Five Elephants Killed As Train Hits Them

At least five elephants were killed and three others were injured on Wednesday when a speeding goods train hit the animals when they were crossing railway tracks near Binnaguri in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal.

"Five elephants were run over and killed on the spot. Three others were injured as the train hit the group of animals at about 11.15 pm," Subhas Chandra Ghosh, ranger of Binnaguri Wildlife range, told PTI.

The elephants were going from Maraghat range forest to Diana forest, he said.

The train movement was stopped for nearly an hour


wymonia on December 09, 2012:

Every time I see a video of people training Elephants in the circus, I get sick to my stomach.. I wish I could find out which circus this "Becky" I have see and heard that name in many beating videos.

I recently visited the Riddles Sanctuary in Greenbrier, Ark and getting ready to visit the winter circus home of elephants in Hugo, Ok. I just can't understand why these so called trainers have to be so cruel. Carol Buckley and The Elephant Whisper didn't beat, stab and starve their elephants into human control.

We have no business breeding, or displaying these poor animals to the public, they deserve so much better.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on February 02, 2011:

Thanks Ewa,

I never quite thought about the Ganesh connection. I will look harder. I still mean to visit your place. I am sure I will get there one day.

Ewa Narkiewicz on February 02, 2011:

Thank you Peter for a pithy article. I can personally attest to the fact that elephants are ambassadors as we have many people come to our Elephantstay to experience and learn about elephants because they have seen/come in contact with elephants in a Zoo or circus in their home country.

Also the ankus or Takaw as it is known in Thailand is not merely a tool but also has a deeper spiritual meaning and the elephant god Ganesh is often seen holding one.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on October 23, 2010:

Eiddwen - Thank you for your comment. There is always another point of view. I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but if they think a little then the work is half done.

Eiddwen from Wales on October 23, 2010:

Thank you bso much Peter for sharing this well written and informative hub.

I love anything to do with animals ,nature etc.

There is always so much more to learn and to be openminded about eg not all zoos are bad!!!

I have only just come across you on here and I am now looking forward to reading more of your work!!

Take care


Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on October 07, 2010:

BeKind - Thank you for reading and your comments. We are all confined by restrictions of some kind and so looked at in such a way we are all in 'prison'. Elephants do not travel 40 miles a day because they want to. They travel to eat and to keep a hold on their territories. Availibility of food means they will not travel far. On a size for size basis the territories of much smaller creatures can be much bigger than those of elephants. It is quality of space rather than quantity which matters both in the wild and in captivity. No I do not believe that a good zoo is a prison. If you have not already done so please read some of my other zoo hubs they may explain a little more. Check out the 'zoo related' section

BeKind on October 07, 2010:

Well written article Peter, but how can you say that zoos are not prisons to an animal like an elephant who will travel up to 40 miles a day ..... walking. There is no possible way a zoo can provide the enrichment or duplicate the conditions these animals, particularily large animals need. I have no doubt the zoo keepers in some circumstances genuinely care for the animals, but to say zoos are not prisons is abit of a stretch. Are the animals free to roam, to graze, to hunt, to rest, to participate in all the activities they would if they were truly free? If they are not, then they are indeed in prison.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on October 06, 2010:

nettraveller - elephants can and do swim. One was rescued well out at sea last year. They do use their trunks as snorkles but usually when lying in rivers. The trunk is the nose but can be used as a hand, club and musical instrument. They suck water half way up their trunks and then blow it into the mouth to drink. They never suck back to the lungs or would be in trouble. Yes elephants do get colds. Never seen a congested one though. Runny ones a few times though.

nettraveller from USA on October 06, 2010:

thank you! I was wondering if things could get stuck in the trunk too. About the trunk, is it the equivalent of a nose? If that is so, I was wondering if they can get "trunk colds", or a congested trunk. Since there are very big differences in functions (they pick up water with their trunks), I don't know what the answer would be. Also, if they are taking water into their trunks, how do they prevent that water from going into their lungs? That said, could an elephant walk underwater and breathe through its trunk held over its head (its very own snorkeling tube)? Can elephants swim?

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on October 06, 2010:

nettraveller - Interesting question - false teeth for elephants. I daresay it could be done but after their 3 score years and 10 I reckon other bits would be past their sell by date as well so it would probably be cruel to extend the life. I believe it is only 6 sets though I daresay 7 would not be impossible.

You mention soft food. This is true to a degree. I have read that elephants living in areas where the foliage is soft and green live longer as a result of teeth sets lasting longer. Whether it is true would be a subject of lengthy research. I have picked up several dropped teeth over the years. Usually swallowed and seen in the dung.

I have seen an elephant knocked down for a tusk repair and another time to remove an onion which had become lodged in the trunk. It takes less anaestheic to put an elephant down than it does some much smaller creatures. Apart from foot and skin maintenance they are generally hardy animals and worked in a 'hands on' capacity any problems are noted earlier than many other species and can quickly be nipped in the bud.

nettraveller from USA on October 05, 2010:

A very informative hub. That first picture is very impressive. I was wondering if elephants in captivity lose their teeth at the same rate as those in the wild? I read somewhere that elephants get 7 sets of teeth through their lifetimes, and when the last set wears out, they starve to death. I have only seen a few elephants in my life, all in zoos and circuses. Was that about the teeth (7 sets, etc ) true? Can zoos extend the life of a captive elephant (false teeth :), or soft food)? Do elephants get tooth decay? If so, can they get a filling at a zoo? Just curious. I know that zoos sometimes can make special repairs that would not be possible in the wild, such as outfitting a sea turtle with a prosthetic flipper. What is the most technologically advanced procedure/operation you have heard of performed on a captive elephant? What would it take to anesthetize an elephant for an operation? Sorry for so many questions. Maybe you could write a hub about some of them, if you haven't already!

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 24, 2010:

Hello, hello - Thank you. Your comment suggests that I may have achieved what I set out to do. I love elephants. I love good zoos. I love my planet.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on September 24, 2010:

Peter, you have written such a wonderfully detailed and extensive article and I enjoyed every line reading it. Great information from someone like you knowing the inside out. Thank you so much.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 23, 2010:

H P Roychoudhury - I did see some in India and you are right they appear oblivious to the traffic.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 23, 2010:

Mountain Blossoms - I share your feelings here. Captive conditions need to be improved but captivity needs to be part of the greater schene of things.

H P Roychoudhury from Guwahati, India on September 23, 2010:

Elephant is a lovely animal in India, very often found to see elephant moving in the street along with streams of car and people.

Marianne Kellow from SE Thailand on September 23, 2010:

An excellent hub Peter and very informative. I think we all need better education on elephants in captivity and I think your hub highlights so many public misconceptions. They really are fantastic creatures and I hope they can still be part of the world my great-grandchildren inherit.

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