IDA Writing Alert: Thinking big when it comes to elephants

November 14th, 2007 6:34 pm by Kelly Garbato

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From: In Defense of Animals – takeaction [at] idausa.org
Date: Nov 14, 2007 8:40 AM
Subject: Writing Alert: Thinking big when it comes to elephants

The Oregonian published an opinion piece about Oregon Zoo’s plans to expand its elephant exhibit. Please write a letter to the editor on the suffering elephants endure in zoos. Send letters to the Oregonian at letters [at] news.oregonian.com.

Read “Thinking big when it comes to elephants” online.

Thinking big when it comes to elephants

Monday, November 12, 2007

Three decades ago, the Oregon Zoo was considered a world leader on captive Asian elephants. Today, even those representing the zoo admit that’s no longer the case. Despite evolving scientific knowledge about elephants and their complex needs, the Oregon Zoo, like most urban zoos, is living in the past. As a result, these endangered animals are needlessly suffering.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for lack of trying. A behind-the-scenes tour leaves no doubt that those who look after Portland’s most popular zoo residents are doing what they can within the facility’s space limitations. But for years, the zoo has kept six or more elephants confined to pens the size of an average suburban backyard. That might be fine for the family dog, but we now know it’s totally inadequate for earth’s largest land mammal, which can weigh as much as 10,000 pounds and which has evolved to walk long distances each day.

Restricted space and unnatural conditions are causing the elephants to suffer and die prematurely from chronically diseased feet and crippling arthritis. Those challenges and the associated expense have led 16 major zoos to close or phase out their elephant exhibits, including zoos in Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York.

Consider Pet, who was euthanized in Portland in 2006. Pet’s feet were so deteriorated from chronic infections that she could barely stand. In her last months, she moved excruciatingly slowly, using her trunk as a crutch. An autopsy revealed she also had severe, bone-on-bone arthritis in most of her joints.

Pet was the third Portland elephant in a decade to suffer and die from these painful, zoo-induced conditions. Worse, according to Oregon Zoo veterinary records obtained by In Defense of Animals under the state’s public records law, each of the five surviving long-term elephant residents has suffered recurrent foot disorders.

Portland’s prized pachyderms deserve better. Although the zoo recently acknowledged that its elephants need more space, a proposed $13.5 million exhibit expansion would bring the total outdoor area to just three acres. That’s woefully inadequate and the expenditure completely unjustified for an expansion that will be obsolete before it ever breaks ground. From my discussions with the staff, zoo insiders are silently nodding in agreement, but political considerations don’t allow such a candid public conversation.

What’s needed is a more visionary plan. Rather than waste tax money on a Band-Aid fix, the Oregon Zoo should establish an off-site, sanctuarylike preserve, starting with a minimum of 50 acres where elephants can have the freedom and space to become elephants again.

That’s exactly what the zoo’s own expert, former veterinarian Michael Schmidt, has been advocating for years. His theory about elephants’ need for large natural preserves has certainly proved true at two U.S. elephant sanctuaries — in California and Tennessee — that offer elephants hundreds to thousands of acres of natural habitat and have restored quality of life to elephants debilitated by years of intense confinement in zoos and circuses.

By creating an expansive, naturalistic preserve, the Oregon Zoo could give elephants a high quality of life and provide the public with a real educational experience. Imagine seeing happy, healthy elephants exhibiting natural behavior instead of the usual zoo experience of watching them stand sadly rocking in one place.

The Oregon Zoo must think as big as the elephants in its charge.

Matt Rossell is Northwest outreach coordinator for In Defense of Animals.

You can use the following points to help you in your letter or visit http://www.HelpElephants.com 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 150 words. Please do not send attachments and 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. If your letter is published, let us know.

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] idausa.org

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