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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes

Published 08/11/08
By Adam M. Roberts, Senior Vice President

It’s been a real revelation in the past two decades to watch zoos (and circuses) cling desperately to their desire to maintain elephants in captivity. I’ve said it hundreds of times, but just because some people want to see elephants up close doesn’t mean that have a right to do so.

Even though zoos do not replicate the natural habitat of the wild Asian or African elephant, they try desperately to manipulate the situation no matter what the cost. It’s like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Look at Ringling Brothers circus. Elephants in the wild can roam freely and be elephants. But because circuses across the globe force them into a role to which they are not suited (um, walking on tightropes, standing on their heads, balancing precariously on pedestals?), these elephants must then be “controlled.” So circus workers, including Ringling Brothers employees, have to use dreaded metal bullhooks to train and control and quite frankly bully their elephants. I’ll tell you what, leave the elephants out of the circus and there will be no need to hit them with sticks to make them perform as you wish. I’m very astute.

Then there are the zoos. They take 1/3 of Swaziland’s population of free-roaming elephants and put them into enclosures a couple of acres in size. They trade animals back and forth like I used to swap baseball cards as a kid. They spend tens of millions of dollars — money that could underpin anti-poaching and wildlife conservation projects for elephants in Africa and Asia for decades to come — on marginally larger or updated enclosures. But they are still too small; they are still inadequate; they are still not what elephants really need. It’s not real conservation and it’s not real compassion.

And when they can’t acquire elephants from the wild or already in zoos elsewhere, they have a go at breeding the elephants in captivity. Boy, do people love to see cute baby elephants. The problem is, even if breeding is successful (which it rarely is), the elephants are still doomed to insufficient surroundings and the possibility of being shuttled to and fro.

Breeding elephants in zoos is not easy, and just last week a 29-year-old Asian elephant at the Woodland Park Zoo reportedly had a miscarriage, having become pregnant through artificial insemination. How grateful we should all be for modern science! I wonder what Chai, the mother-that-was-to-be, feels right now.

So, let me get this straight: we need elephants to look at up close in urban jungles of our making, so we bring them in from the wild (where they actually got to be elephants) ... but if we can’t get a wild one, we’ll just breed them here ... but if they aren’t breeding naturally or we don’t have the right elephants handy to conceive, we’ll just artificially inseminate them ... and if that doesn’t work, well, so be it, we can try again ... and if it does work, HOORAY! ... a lifetime in captivity.

There’s a reason square pegs don’t go into round holes. It’s not a natural fit. And neither is keeping elephants in captivity.

Blogging off,


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