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How Long Do Elephants Live in Zoos?

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

Two elephants at the Toronto Zoo, Thika and Toka. Controversially pegged to be sent to P.A.W.S. Used with permission ""

Two elephants at the Toronto Zoo, Thika and Toka. Controversially pegged to be sent to P.A.W.S. Used with permission ""

The Seattle Times Ignites Controversy over Captive Zoo Elephants

It seems as though investigative reporter for the Seattle times, Michael J. Berens, feels as though he’s latched onto another ‘story of the year’ in his recent written series that lampoons AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)-accredited zoological facilities for their conflicts regarding the state of elephant captivity, their compromised efforts in maintaining a self-sustaining elephant population and successfully producing calves via techniques of artificial insemination. Lovingly entitled “Elephants are Dying out in America’s Zoos”, the report cherry-picks terms to maintain an overall disdainful interpretation of the methods zoos are using to increase their captive elephant populations. The article highlights that the infant-mortality rates in zoos are “almost triple the rate in the wild” at a “staggering 40 percent”.

Zoo elephants

Zoo elephants

The associated video report, called ‘Glamour Beasts: the Dark Side of Elephant Captivity’, implores the viewer that zoos fret over producing a viable captive elephant population simply because they are star attractions, with births of their young becoming an effective draw for crowds and in effect, increased donations.

I’m unaware if Berens is on the attack against zoos because of existing personal ideological sentiment, or if he’s been encouraged by the prospects of journalistic success that such a controversial subject will inevitable entail. As Berens has stated, elephants are ‘glamour beasts’, and any other such issues occurring with less alluring or typical animal species would be lost on the majority of the public. This is probably why the public, while disturbed to learn of the existence of stereotypic behavior in some zoo elephants, are completely unaware that similar issues exist with domesticated horses and other domesticated livestock.

Either way, his series is misleading, perhaps intentionally, and is a fragment of an increasing wave of misguided hatred toward animal captivity of nearly any form, stemming from the proliferation of ignorance and misinformation typically by ‘animal rights’ special interest groups. Such as is the case with the aforementioned horses, improved care, not sacking captivity, is an appropriate remedy by far in a majority of cases when it comes to the care of non-domesticated animals and wildlife. The captive husbandry of elephants clearly poses a challenge in the zoo environment, and just as they always have and are continuing to do, accredited zoos are evolving to meet the elevated needs of these animals.


The Zoo’s Mission Has “Failed”

“Fifty years later, The Seattle Times set out to examine how that effort has turned out. Despite the zoo industry's insistence otherwise, by almost any measure, it has failed.”

Does this say something negative about zoos? Animal husbandry, and certainly propagation of a species is a complicated science. When you take on any difficult task, success is not always guaranteed. There are bound to be "failures". I wouldn’t be surprised if zoos did 'mislead' the public into thinking the elephant breeding programs were a swimming success, as Berens complains. I believe this simply because such issues are complex and, as they are doing now, the general public may take such news the wrong way. I have observed many cases of successful animal husbandry and others, not so great. When you have long-lived animals like elephants, and the fact that they do not breed profusely like other animals, the challenge of analyzing whether or not things are going in the right direction over the long term is difficult.

Elephants are unique from other animals in captivity because they have strong social bonds, advanced intelligence, and a heavier requirement for space to maintain proper physical health. Hence, the issues with captive elephant births in zoos are a problem which probably are a by-product of inadequate past standards, but the situation is still in an evolutionary process.

Elephants in the wild

Elephants in the wild

What Are Sanctuaries?

A word on the misconceptions of what a “sanctuary” is: the term alone does not always denote sprawling hills and open space for captive animals. The word sanctuary is often used interchangeably among many animal-holding facilities; zoos, private owners, and breeding facilities alike. All sanctuaries are technically defined as zoos, however the “sanctuaries” as described in Berens’ article, are spacious (hundreds of acres), retirement facilities for elephants (and other animals) that have lived in zoos, circuses, and other captive environments. They hold anti-breeding, anti-captivity stances, and believe that the remaining captive animals can only happily exist in large, naturalistic settings. However, make no mistake that such an existence is still captivity.

Berens’ position becomes clearer in the ‘part 2’ (Elephant Havens Face Zoo-industry Backlash) of his criticisms. It seems as though he’s attempting to inspire a knee-jerk reaction from the uninformed public to stop attending zoos as he suggests that they are merely an entertainment powerhouse, akin to circuses, that villainously compromise the welfare of the animals in their care.

In ‘Elephant Havens’, he describes the AZA’s dissatisfaction with animal ‘sanctuaries’, of which two that accept retired zoo elephants exist: The Elephant Sanctuary of Tennessee, and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (P.A.W.S.).

  • Toronto Zoo Elephants In Trouble
    Toronto City councillors have decided to send the Toronto Zoo elephants to California. They took this decision without consulting the zoo and seemingly without considering the risks. The elephants may be facing disease.

Elephant Deaths Since the 1960s

The Seattle Times' series boasts a wealth of information that was meticulously gathered, and featured on the website's page is an interactive map showing the locations where elephants have died in AZA accredited zoos since the 1960s. I suppose this was an attempt to shock the viewer given that there have been many elephant deaths in most U.S. states and this is clearly expressed on the map. Yet I found this map to be a very helpful tool and entered the numbers and information into an excel spread sheet to calculate the ages of the animals listed. However, I only entered information from the last 10 to 20 years, and separated these two ranges, as animal care tends to largely improve per decade. While I'm still assessing my results, I have discovered that:

  • The map is supposed to contain data about elephants that have died in the 1960s to 2012, but strangely the feature erroneously lists at least four elephants that I've found to have died in the early 1900s and late 1800's (I noticed this because I calculated their ages to be over 100, which is too old even for elephants). Two examples:

    Gold Dust” National Zoo. Listed as: 1880 to 1998. Actually: (1873–1898) (25 years).

    Cleo” Atlanta Zoo. Listed as: 1885-2005 Actually : (1885-1902) (17 years)
  • There has been an estimated 185 elephant deaths in AZA zoos since the 1960s according to this data.
  • The median lifespan of these numbers is 27, with the age of stillbirths (0 years) included.
  • The median lifespan of these numbers excluding stillbirths is 33.
  • There were 35 still births (35/185) which equates to 19% of the data.
  • The elephant herpes virus was responsible for 11/27 (40%) of the deaths of elephants that died under the age of 10.
  • 96 elephants out of the total that have died lived 30+ years (95/185) (51%) (185 includes still births)
  • 59 elephants out of the total that have died lived 40+ years (59/185) (32%)
  • The median of the elephant's ages at death in 1992-2002 (20 years to 10 years) without including the numbers for stillbirths/early infant death is approximately 27 years.
  • The median of the elephant's ages when they died in last 10 years (2003-2012) without including the numbers of stillbirths/early infant death is approximately 43 years.

All give or take any potential errors I could have made, as I clicked through the values on the map and had to re-add Hawaii, which wasn't displayed.

*Some of the elephants' causes of death were listed as 'unknown'. It is possible that such animals were relocated to other facilities and may still be living.


I analyzed the ages without the stillbirth 'ages' (0 years) because I don't consider this to be directly husbandry-related, for the most part. The rearing of adult animals and infants offer different challenges, with the care of young being more difficult and requiring more research. The elephant herpes virus, which supposedly also exists in the wild, may also take the lives of previously healthy elephants.

As of yet I haven't examined the numbers and condition of elephants that have survived compared to those that haven't.

I found it important to address that this map does not only list elephants that have died prematurely, and that around half of them were at least considered to middle aged. Some of the premature elephant deaths were due to 'accidents', such as being killed by another elephant or falling.

The medians that I calculated for the adult-aged elephants appeared to show that their overall lifespans increased 10 years ago vs. 20 years ago. While there may be other variables, including the differences in population of the animals, when, or if they were caught from the wild (the average age for wild capture is 3-4 years), and where they had spent the majority of their existence, I still find it very plausible that the elephants of today stand a far better chance with the modern and improved zoo elephant husbandry standards that are rapidly being implemented.

Studies that asses the lifespan of elephants in captivity are disadvantaged from the small sample sizes of zoo elephants and the difference in care per decade, while animals from these earlier decades could retain harm from outdated husbandry methods and pass away earlier. I estimate that it would take at least around 20 more years to properly assess whether or not significant improvement is occurring with zoo elephants in the case of longevity. Either way, many individual facilities are having successes (with quality of life for elephants and reproduction) that are not mentioned.


Why Does the AZA 'Oppose' Sanctuaries?

This might be a bit of a stretch, but first and foremost, zoos might not appreciate that sanctuaries have an anti-zoo stance. Yes, it’s true, zoos have a ‘mission’ to propagate their animals in captivity and do in fact, support breeding, while sanctuaries like P.A.W.S do not. In addition to having a pro-continuing existence stance for captive animal populations, zoos also hold the belief that allowing people to see animals is paramount toward a continued appreciation for them with members of the public. Zoos believe that pictures in a textbook and nature documentaries (which I consider to be mostly unpleasant ‘animal snuff' films) are not comparable to seeing a living animal in the flesh.

Consider that at P.A.W.S attendance by the public is only allowed five times a year and it is only available to well-off donators at a high expense. At this point, I commend sanctuaries like the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary for incorporating large housing for its carnivores while still allowing the public to see the animals while not in the least bit jeopardizing their welfare. Simple common sense standards exist to allow animals to be viewed without causing them distress. ‘Sanctuaries’ also rarely contribute to research and education. I for one, would love to see studies done that measure the stress levels of animals in sanctuaries vs. traditional zoos. Sanctuaries also often depend on zoos for their advances with veterinary care methods. I believe that learning to care for these animals is an extremely valuable resource that some species may eventually need.

Often also misunderstood is that breeding and rearing for female elephants can actually provide significant enrichment.

Wild elephant in Tanzania

Wild elephant in Tanzania

“Elephants are not designed for captivity”

This is a quote spoken by Pat Derby (P.A.W.S) in the incriminating ‘Glamour Beasts’ video. Yet again, I have the same confusion of this situation that I have emphasized about the popular sanctuary for exotic felines, Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida, and their supposed belief that big cats do not belong in cages. Clearly while living in cages, BCR’s own feline residents appear to be living a very reasonable existence, one that I would argue is superior to the wild and the inevitable premature death that such a life would offer once these animals reach a certain age. Derby’s elephants are not in cages per se, but they are in captivity, and the zoos that are being demonized are taking steps to improve the husbandry of their elephants. The article lauds the success of elephants at P.A.W.S and some individual's recovery from illness when they enter the sanctuary. If the elephants can improve their health in a captive situation (from a bad one), more evidence is required to support the belief that all captivity is terrible for them.

As was briefly mentioned by Berens, some zoos have ended their elephant exhibits. This is happening for a handful of reasons: with the current knowledge that elephants have an immense need for ample room to roam on appropriate substrate and for exercise, most traditional zoos are either too small to accommodate these changes outdoors, or, as many locations have harsh winters, it is not economically feasible to accommodate this need in small barns, or to construct appropriately-sized barns. There is also the issue of providing a healthy social structure for the animals. Zoos are now changing to accommodate large family groups.

Elephants in Chiang Mai

Elephants in Chiang Mai

The AZA will be opening an ‘elephant' sanctuary in Florida, called the National Elephant Center, which consists of 225 acres with lakes and natural forage (I’m not clear on how much of this land will be available to each individual elephant). Yet, animal rights activists are predictably not happy with this. They say that this developing facility is not a ‘sanctuary’, but a breeding center. Indeed, it is no secret that zoos believe in breeding their animals. The probable correlation of improper space (and other aspects of past elephant husbandry standards) with the lowered expectation of elephants reaching their natural lifespan which may also result in poor reproductive success has called for changes in elephant care; hence the facility adopting ‘sanctuary-like’ accommodations. The 'sanctuary' also accommodates space for surplus males. In other words, zoos are doing exactly what they should be doing when observing that their older methods have been unsuccessful. They are evolving their elephant-rearing methods. I see no problems with that, as I do not hold anti-captivity ‘Born Free’ positions and I don’t hold ideologies that zoos shouldn’t exist. Zoos can’t exist and carry out their causes without their animal population.


Why Zoos Should Continue

I often find myself in the position to 'defend the indefensible'. It is always a simple solution to simply 'phase out' any situation that unintentionally results in harm. These days, it seems that people have a difficult time understanding that humans do use animals for their own benefit and even for sustenance. Given this fact, I have difficulty understanding why when it comes to simply caring for and allowing people to see animals, and particular those that are not domesticated, that people then strongly object to such on moral grounds, despite the benefits to both species involved. There may be a ‘dark side’ to captivity just as there is a dark side to the wild. With a continued progression toward examining ways to humanely maintain elephants in captivity so that people can also see and understand them, the modern zoo can be a symbiotic relationship between humans and non-humans. If this means relinquishing elephants from ‘traditional’ zoos in northern climates and from those with too little space, so be it. I anticipate the results of these changes that are taking place with the hopes of success for the improved welfare of these animals.

Perhaps Derby, with the unparalleled luxury of being able to view these fascinating animals on a daily basis may lose sight of the profound experiences that would be denied to future generations of children and adults alike.

More Information

  • Elephant Care
  • Link 2
    Former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation & Science Discusses the State of Zoos & their Future

AZA Zoo Elephants Play


Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 16, 2012:

Yes Shaddie, I agree. I am similarly un-optimistic for the future of exotic pets and zoos, which are certainly in the same boat even though one tends to attack the other. I just hope we can prolong it for as long as possible.

Miriam Weigand on December 16, 2012:

Shaddie, your comments are right on the mark!

Shaddie from Washington state on December 16, 2012:

As a Washingtonian myself, I have a few friends that work at the Woodland Park Zoo and are able to see how these animals are considered and treated "behind the scenes." One of them made this statement earlier this month in response to the Seattle Times' bashing:

"WPZ is a non profit. Every cent goes to operation costs, the care of the animals, and conservation projects all over the world to save wild animals in peril. People that work at world renown zoos are experts, they are scientists, they are activists. They know how to care and observe these animals better than anyone else and there is absolutely ZERO gain in mistreating them."

I still can't wrap my head around how someone who has no direct or longterm experience with elephants or any animals in particular could write such an article and expect to be believed. Yet people do believe him, blindly, simply because his articles appear in the paper. This bizarre influx of anti-captive sentiment is getting worse and worse, and I am pessimistic towards what the future holds for all of us.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 15, 2012:

Thank you for a balanced reply Terry-Young. I suppose the definition of a sanctuary varies via perspective. I honestly can't see why elephants would be bothered by people looking at them for a few hours a week from afar. I would imagine that it eventually becomes routine and unnoticeable. I think it would be a shame to only allow sanctuary owners and workers to be able to view and interact with these animals. In the TES videos I see the keepers petting and interacting with the elephants. I think the benefit for people far outweighs the slight annoyance at best that an elephant may feel from crowds viewing them. Seems as though the ARAs think animals are entitled to live far better than even us. I think their definition of a true sanctuary is unfortunate. As for the wine tasting, I wouldn't pay 25 cents for one if there were no animals!

Thank you for providing more info about TNEC, I didn't know about the hurricanes and bullhooks. I can't say I have an opinion on the Toronto zoo elephant scenario. I also don't feel overly concerned that it will affect the elephants, but I've seen credible sources say that they are, so I remain on the fence. P.A.W.S will absolutely have hell to pay if the animals get the disease and will never recover from that negative publicity, so given this, I'm confident they will do everything to insure it doesn't happen, haha. Same thing for TNEC, if storms are a threat to the animals livelihoods that would be a waste of money creating it. I'm glad that you are observing this situation piece by piece and not adopting radical anti-zoo positions. Being around animals other than dogs and cats is of great importance to me and I'm sure it is for others.

Terry-Young on December 15, 2012:

I appreciate your analyses of the elephant births. You added good clarification. From what I have been reading of definitions, a sanctuary is one where the animals live as free as possible without human intervention as much as possible (includes nutritional care, foot care and vet care, of course), and have their own accreditation

The Seattle Times mentioned NEC as a sanctuary, yet ARAs consider it not a sanctuary since it will be AZA accredited, there will be bullhooks, bare five acre paddocks (without the elephants being able to get under the trees or interact with the brush), and of course breeding. It is also in prime hurricane territory without any way to evacuate the elephants which surely would be traumatized by a direct hit (inland would have been a better choice because the weather can't be argued with). The barn appears not to be permanent, or would certainly be blown apart in a hurricane. Baring a catastrophe, I agree it is what zoos should be doing and is an alternative to the smaller zoos where AZA elephants can be sent. However what quarantine methods will be in place remains to be seen because many zoo elephants are positive for TB and which elephant gets placed there is not known. The appearance of the large barn seems not to have that quarantine accommodated for.

Radical "purists" consider TES in TN as the only true elephant sanctuary because no visitors are allowed except a very few that pay thousands of dollars to support TES, and even then they get a once in a lifetime visit. The sanctuary studying TB with their vet Susan Mikota who has written a book on elephant medicine and Vanderbilt University. It is not taking in elephants at the time, it appears because of the study.

PAWS seems to be in between, and considered by most a sanctuary because for the most of the time they elephants are left to live as they want out of view. When visitors come several times a year, no little children, they pay @$100 to view an afternoon, but that many times includes wine tastings which would cost about the same. I have been confused by the TB debate because the records show none of the African elephants have tested positive and are separated from the Asians. The reason I do not worry for the Toronto elephants is because of Maggie. She looked so awful when she arrived and she looks very healthy now. I am not writing in any hateful tone, I believe the Toronto elephants will be OK because of the separation of species and no positive tests for exposure. Time will tell, but many people live around active tuberculosis and do not succumb to the disease, it is not always a death sentence and this article does not seem to play to the worst possible scenario.

I do not agree that zoos are sanctuaries because of the lack of privacy, peace and quiet, but as with your conclusion, I believe zoos should continue. There are many animals which thrive in this structured environment, especially those that are indigenous to a local climate. With the way our animal life is declining in any part of the world, they do need help and in most cases breeding.

I thank you for a balanced article.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 10, 2012:

Thank you Miriam

Miriam Weigand on December 10, 2012:

Melissa, that was one 'boss' article. Very well-written and balanced. Thanks!

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