Death of Zoo's Elephant Calf Stimulates Captivity Debate

Memphis Commercial Appeal

July 12, 2009
By Linda Moore

Drew Smith/Memphis Zoo
Asali is followed by her calf, Lil' Girl, on the one day of her life in their enclosure at the Memphis Zoo last week. The calf was accidentally killed by her mother on Wednesday, leading many to wonder about the animals' place in enclosures.

Are zoos a place of refuge for elephants, a safe haven where visitors learn about these majestic mammals?

Or are zoos an unnatural environment for these social and sensitive creatures, places unsuitable for living -- and most certainly for giving birth?

Last week, the Memphis Zoo celebrated the birth of an elephant calf, a joy that turned to ashes when mother Asali accidently killed the day-and-a-half-old newborn.

What has quickly followed is a conversation that leaves little room for compromise.

"Zoos just do not provide the space and natural conditions elephants need, and because of that, elephants are suffering and dying in zoos," said Catherine Doyle, a campaign director with In Defense of Animals, an international organization that has administrative offices in San Rafael, Calif.

One day after the death of the calf, Doyle's organization released a statement alleging Asali had been mistreated and bemoaning her "tragic, traumatic and unnatural life."

Asali was born in 1985 at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, and came to Memphis in 1998. She has never been with more than three elephants and had never seen a calf until the birth of her baby. Doyle contends the absence of a herd in Asali's life made her ill-prepared for motherhood.

"Because of Asali's captive life she was basically set up to fail," Doyle said. "This is just one more example of why elephants do not belong in zoos."

Zoo officials bristled at the charges.

"The truth of the matter is there is mortality at all levels of the wild populations and there's mortality at all levels of captive populations," said Chuck Brady, president and CEO of the Memphis Zoo. "Clearly zoos are transparent, so any mortality at any level is documented whereas wild populations are somewhat more difficult to fully census."

Captive elephants act as ambassadors for elephants in the wild, leading to conservation efforts in the wild, Brady said.

He doesn't expect Doyle's group to see his point.

"We don't have any bone to pick with (them)," he said. "We applaud every conservation effort. We focus on making sure what we're doing is right and it's the best care we can give them."

Observing this debate is Carol Buckley, director of The Elephant Sanctuary, who shies away from setting a foot in either camp.

The sanctuary sits on 2,700 acres in Hohenwald, Tenn., near Nashville. Its mission is to provide a safe home for elephants retired from zoos and circuses. There are close to two dozen elephants there. There is no breeding.

Buckley acknowledges the good done by animal-rights groups in raising awareness.

But the statement released immediately after the calf's death was "horribly insensitive and unkind" and does not help improve the dialogue between zoos and animal rights groups, she said.

"They're being blamed and so the response is to become defensive. And when you're being defensive there is no dialogue going on," Buckley said. "Nobody wants this to happen again, especially the zoo staff."

Elephants need to live in a healthful environment, and if zoos and circuses provide that, that's fine, Buckley said.

"We don't care where they live as long as where they're living is a healthy environment for elephants."

That said, many zoos acknowledge that providing for elephants is a challenge, said Buckley. Some no longer have elephants and some have created satellite locations that give elephants more room.

Brady noted that some northern zoos have ended their programs because it is too cold and the elephants spent too much time indoors.

Breeding programs, Buckley added, may help with elephant preservation, but they are not conservation.

She believes zoo breeding programs need to better mimic circumstances in the wild.

"We've learned from great apes, chimps and highly intelligent mammals: If they are not raised by their mothers they lack nurturing skills," she said.

Had Asali lived in such an environment, another elephant could have intervened and saved the calf, she said.

"Ultimately, her first experience with a calf shouldn't have have been her own calf," Buckley said.

 Original Article