The Politics of Pachyderms (Part 1)

I first reported about the Oregon Zoo on this blog in January (‘Two “Lily”s at the Oregon Zoo’).  Since then, circumstances have deteriorated.

Last month (May), the Oregon Zoo Director, Kim Smith, along with the zoo’s Chief Veterinarian, Mitch Finnegan, were both fired.  This action came following the death of a 20-year-old Sumatran orangutan, named Kutai, who died following minor surgery.

Then, on May 25, “Six cotton-top tamarins—a species of small New World monkey—died of unknown causes … while in quarantine at the Oregon Zoo’s veterinary medical center.  The six deceased belonged to a group of nine tamarins that arrived at the zoo May 22,” on loan from Harvard University, according to Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for the regional government that operates the Oregon Zoo. (1)  This occurred after Smith and Finnegan had been dismissed.  And so this incident reveals that the zoo’s problems are more endemic.

Next, on June 11, it was reported that “Tests have confirmed tuberculosis in Tusko, the third elephant at the Oregon Zoo in Portland with the respiratory disease.  Veterinarians are beginning an 18-month treatment regimen for the 44-year-old male Asian elephant.  Two other bull elephants, Packy and Rama, are being treated for TB that was diagnosed last year at the zoo.” (2)

In addition to all this, perhaps at the foundation of the controversies involving the Oregon Zoo, is the management of its elephant herd—especially its breeding program.  The zoo’s “chief claim to fame is its elephant-breeding program—a project many of its peers have abandoned as outdated and barbaric.” (3)  Part of this controversy involves Lily, the elephant calf born on November 30, 2012.  The Seattle Times revealed that Have Trunk Will Travel, a California-based elephant rental company, “was to take ownership of Lily after she was 6 months old, in exchange for the breeding services of Tusko, a bull elephant that had been loaned to the Oregon Zoo in 2005. …(However,) The following February, the zoo purchased the rights to Lily and Tusko for $400,000, using money from the Oregon Zoo Foundation.” (3)

While Kim Smith was still director, it was reported that “the Oregon Zoo had shifted from its plans to use a voter-funded bond to give its elephants more room to roam in Clackamas County.  Rather than simply give the elephants a second home, the zoo decided to buy a second herd and begin a new, aggressive breeding program, according to zoo documents.  ‘We’ve always been very clear on our vision of breeding elephants,’ Smith (said) at the time.” (4)

Despite the Oregon Zoo’s current construction of its new, 6.25-acre pachyderm habitat, called Elephant Lands, my personal views about elephants in captivity are changing.  (Six and a quarter acres, are you joking?  Together with “a new, aggressive breeding program”?)

For this blog post, and future ones, I contacted Dr. G.A. Bradshaw, author of the book, Elephants on the Edge. She replied to my e-mail with a wealth of information.  So in this post, I will share some of her observations about elephants in captivity.  Her paper, “Inside Looking Out: Neuroethological Compromise Effects in Elephants in Captivity,” corrected my misunderstanding about “domesticated” elephants, such as those throughout Asia, based upon her statements concerning captivity itself: “a psychologically mediated physical condition that disbars agency—the sense of self as an instrument of one’s own destiny. …Many zoos make efforts to increase biophysical and social diversity, but given physical and logistical limitations of structures and practices of close confinement, elephant life remains completely or largely determined by the agendas of zoo personnel.  There is little opportunity for revitalizing agency that is, by definition, seriously undermined in captivity.  Personal exercise of free will is highly circumscribed within a narrow set of parameters (e.g., availability of enrichment toys and activities), time, and space.  Quotidian routines with little variety relative to wild conditions and continued atrophy of agency leads elephants, as Timerman (2002) describes, to robot-like behavior and numbing which may appear as loss of appetite, depression, stereotypy and apathy.”  For instance, “Dissociative or dissociative-like behaviors are commonly observed in elephants who are confined (e.g., somatization, swaying and other stereotypies).”

Dr. Bradshaw continues: “Much is made of the elephant-human relationship in captivity—indeed, cultivation of this bond is considered key to successful management of elephants in captivity.  But as traumatologists are quick to point out, these relationships are psychologically corrosive and volatile because of the imposed power differential: the human plays the dual role of agent of captivity or abuse or both, as well as attachment and survival.  Elephant management is by definition physical (e.g., ankus, chutes) and emotional (e.g., trainer-elephant relationship) coercion.”

Concerning captive breeding, such as the Oregon Zoo advocates, Dr. Bradshaw concludes: “Because captivity effects dramatically decrease overall fitness, the use of captive breeding as a tool for conservation is therefore contraindicated from both a scientific and ethical standpoint.”  Earlier, she observes: “After birth, young captive-born elephants typically lack the traditional allomother-rearing context, are often separated from mother and live alone or in highly altered social structures—similar to traumatic stress conditions that have been linked with serious and functional compromise elsewhere and significantly affect elephant well-being and behavior.”

Captive elephants are prevalent in India.  One organization in Bangalore, called Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, or CUPA, is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating captive elephants.  I will write about the work of CUPA Bangalore in my next post.

To conclude:  Why does it matter?  A close friend and I recently were discussing this while having breakfast together.  He posed the question:  “Are we only postponing the inevitable (i.e., their extinction, or elimination as a wild species)?  Why not study them in the wild for as long as we can – perhaps ten more years – but let nature take its course.”  I can offer four responses at this point, and I’ll share more in future posts as they occur to me.

1) They are sentient, self-aware beings like ourselves, albeit in a different realm, yet we control their destiny. So it behooves us to do so in a way that respects them and preserves their survival.

2) HEC (“human-elephant conflict”)– Humans are suffering due to our mismanagement of the Asian (and African) elephant.

3) Must protect them in the wild for what they teach us about ourselves; the subtitle of Dr. Bradshaw’s book is “What Animals Teach Us about Humanity.”

4) Elephants represent not so much another species, but rather another culture, which we must respect as when we visit any other culture of human society.

Lee Cuesta






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