IDA Writing Alert: Coming this fall: Zoo expansion plans

July 17th, 2007 5:12 pm by Kelly Garbato

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: In Defense of Animals – takeaction [at]
Date: Jul 16, 2007 10:58 AM
Subject: Writing Alert: Coming this fall: Zoo expansion plans

The Birmingham News published a story about Birmingham Zoo’s future plans for a new elephant exhibit. Please write a letter to the editor on the suffering elephants endure in zoos urging the zoo to scrap any such plans. Send letters to the Birmingham News at epage [at]

Read “Coming this fall: Zoo expansion plans” online.

Coming this fall: Zoo expansion plans

Sunday, July 15, 2007
STAN DIEL and WALTER BRYANT, News staff writers

Mona, the elephant beloved by her fans but pitied by animal rights activists before her death last month, will not be the Birmingham Zoo’s last elephant.

An ambitious zoo expansion plan to be unveiled in the fall will include a “much bigger” elephant exhibit, said Dr. Bill Foster, the zoo’s chief executive officer.

Foster declined to disclose specifics about the greater plan, but in broad strokes painted a picture of a zoo that puts animals in larger, more realistic habitats and focuses more on conservation and education.

Foster and officials with other zoos said most new zoo developments are vastly different from those done just a generation ago.

“It’s no longer acceptable to just have a menagerie of animals,” Foster said.

Foster discussed current trends in zoo development, and officials from other zoos speculated that some might be seen in an expanded Birmingham Zoo. They include:

Experience-based exhibits. The Birmingham Zoo already has created several such exhibits since Foster’s arrival in 2004. More exhibits like the ones in which children can feed the giraffes, and in which people walk through clouds of butterflies or feed lorikeets, are likely.

Conservation work. The zoo already has a national reputation for gorilla cardiac care because it was the first to implant a pacemaker in a gorilla – Babec in 2004. And Foster said the zoo intends to work directly with the veterinary medicine schools at Tuskegee University, his alma mater, and Auburn University.

Bigger animal habitats. Most new zoo facilities are better for both the animals and their human visitors, experts said.

A bigger elephant exhibit is sure to be a high-profile part of an expanded Birmingham Zoo. Jim Bartoo, spokesman for the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere, said it’s animals such as elephants, lions and hippos – sometimes called “the sexy megavertabrates” by those in the zoo business – that get the most people in the gates, he said.

Elephant exhibits, however, have been under fire in recent years from activists who argue that the animals are too big, too intelligent and too social to be humanely kept in zoos. As the captive animals die of old age, activists have been lobbying zoos to not replace them.

Victoria Nichols, founding director of Alabama Wildlife Advocates, said the Birmingham Zoo’s Mona is a perfect example of how elephant exhibits are cruel to the animals. Mona, who was about 60 last month when she died, spent nearly all her life in a space the size of two basketball courts.

“What the public sees in zoos is not elephants exhibiting their natural behavior,” she said.

Foster, who concedes that Mona’s habitat was inferior by modern standards, said there are compelling reasons to keep elephants in zoos that reach beyond simply allowing people to see them.

Research done on captive elephants may one day save the lives of many of the animals in the wild, he said. An elephant that died recently at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo – also drawing fire from activists – was felled by a virus that kills the animals in the wild, too. Research drawn from that animal’s death may help find a cure for the virus, Foster said.

And research into how elephants communicate may one day lead to fewer conflicts between humans and elephants in the wild, saving both elephant and human lives, he said.

As for other likely new exhibits, officials at other zoos said the Louisville Zoo’s award-winning gorilla habitat might be indicative of the sort of ambition the Birmingham Zoo will bring to its expansion plans.

The Louisville gorilla exhibit – the crown jewel of Foster’s tenure as director of that zoo before he came to Birmingham – houses 12 gorillas on four acres.

Zoo attendance climbs:

The Birmingham Zoo already has undergone some significant changes in recent years, and attendance has jumped as a result. In 1999, ownership of the facility was passed from the city of Birmingham to a nonprofit partnership. The zoo still receives taxpayer support, with $3.4 million of its $7.7 million in revenue last year coming from government grants and other public funds, according to documents it filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Attendance in 1999, the year the ownership changed, totaled just over 294,000. In the years since, the zoo has expanded – adding the $15 million Children’s Zoo, among other features – and managers said attendance this year is expected to exceed 500,000, setting a record.

One advantage the zoo has over many other urban zoos is its location, Foster said. It’s centrally located between Birmingham, Homewood and Mountain Brook, but has room for expansion. Its 800 animals from about 200 species sit on 45 acres, with an additional 77 undeveloped acres ready for growth.

Plans for expansion:

Though Foster declined to talk about specific exhibits being considered for expansion plans, he said Birmingham won’t try to compete exhibit versus exhibit with other regional zoos that have established themselves as destinations. There’s no point in trying to out-panda Atlanta, he said.

But Birmingham can find its own niche.

“I think we’re going to play a national role,” he said.

At the zoo last Thursday morning, Birmingham’s Angie Richardson sat in the shade and watched her children, Will, 4, and Sarah Jane, 2, splash in the water feature at the Hugh Kaul Children’s Zoo.

Like others in the zoo that day, she said she’d watched as the zoo has grown in recent years, and is pleased with what’s been done and excited about what might be next. The zoo isn’t Atlanta, Nashville or San Diego, she said. It’s Birmingham.

“I think it suits us,” she said.

E-mail: sdiel [at] On the Net

You can use the following points to help you in your letter or visit for more information.

* Elephants are highly complex, social animals who live in extended family groups and travel over thirty miles a day. Today’s zoos are unable to meet the physical and social needs of elephants. These needs include space, adequate exercise, and extended social groups.

* Elephants in zoos suffer from captivity-induced physical and psychological health problems due to lack of space. Health problems include debilitating foot and joint problems, arthritis, digestive disorders, stereotypic behaviors (neurotic behaviors resulting from severe confinement). Other problems include reproductive system shutdown (flatliners), and high infant mortality rate.

* The AZA, a zoo industry trade organization, provides a set of standards that are insufficient for the proper maintenance of elephants. These standards include a minimum outdoor enclosure size of 1,800 square feet for one elephant, the equivalent of six parking lot spaces. The standards also allow the prolonged chaining of elephants.

* As the largest land mammal, elephants are genetically designed to move and forage most of the day; this constant movement is necessary for their psychological and physical well-being.

* Historically elephants have been managed through coercive force, such as chaining for prolonged periods and use of bullhooks and electrical hotshots; this abuse is unacceptable.

* Zoos routinely move elephants, and other animals, from one zoo to another with little to no consideration for their social bonds. In the wild female elephants never leave their mothers and male elephants have complex social structures with other bulls and females. No elephant in the wild lives in constant solitary confinement.

Letters should be less than 200 words. Please do not send attachments. Please remember to include your full name, address, and phone number (for verification purposes–street names and phone numbers will not be published) and not to use any wording in this alert or cross-post it to other lists. Thanks and good luck!

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In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization with more than 85,000 members and supporters dedicated to ending the abuse and exploitation of animals by protecting their rights and welfare. IDA’s efforts include educational events, cruelty investigations, boycotts, grassroots activism, and hands-on rescue through our sanctuaries in Mississippi and Cameroon, Africa.

In Defense of Animals 3010 Kerner Blvd., San Rafael, California 94901 – P: (415) 388-9641 F: (415) 388-0388

email: idainfo [at]



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