Walk in their shoes

I realize now that unwittingly I’ve been conducting an in-depth, long-term experiment over the past ten years.  You see, I have a second job, in addition to my writing, speaking, blogging, kayaking, grandchildren, reading, cooking and advocating for Asian elephants.  I am currently employed by the largest home-improvement retailer in the world, which means I might spend eight hours a day walking continuously on solid concrete.  My feet take abuse.  In fact, when I get off the concrete, and walk on true, uneven earth, it feels like a foot massage.

Fortunately, I wear top-quality basketball shoes – high-top for ankle support – from Nike, along with top-quality insoles from Dr. Scholl’s.  Yet even so, my two feet suffer.  What about our big-brain, mammal companions who – in captivity – might spend their lives with their four, bare feet on solid concrete?  I can relate to them in a small way.  When I release my feet from their shoes, and elevate them in my recliner, I feel an ache, not quite painful, as sensation returns to them, as if they had been numbed by the pounding.  At the same time, I feel occasional, intense stings in my toes.  When I remove my socks, I notice a large callus of hard skin on the inside of my left foot, between my heel and the arch.  My right foot has a much smaller callus in the corresponding spot.  The nail is cracked on the big toe of my left foot, and it’s taking a long time to grow out.  When I walk barefoot across linoleum, I can feel that the pads on the underside of my toes are toughened.

By comparison with what captive elephants experience, this is very mild.  Dr. G.A. Bradshaw reports that “Pet, the elephant at the Oregon Zoo, was euthanized at fifty-one.  Her feet were so damaged that she was forced to wear sandals and used her trunk as a crutch.  Having lived decades on concrete surfaces, she developed severe degenerative joint disease in all four legs.” (1)  Once again, the Oregon Zoo is implicated, this time in Dr. Bradshaw’s seminal book, Elephants on the Edge.  In this blog I have previously documented conditions at the Oregon Zoo (see my post for June 2014, two months ago).

An overview entitled “Oregon Zoo Health Status” from the HelpElephants.com website states:  “Each of the 6 Oregon Zoo elephants suffers from foot disease (cracked nails, abscesses, lesions, ulcers, fissures, fractured toes). (The number does not include Hugo, who also had suffered from chronic nail infections prior to his death.) The problems require frequent to almost daily intervention from keepers to flush infected areas and debride (cut away) necrotic (dead) tissue. Even the youngest elephants suffer from foot problems. Chendra, an orphan from Malaysia, developed foot problems within 2 months of coming to the Oregon Zoo.(2)

The Help Elephants report continues verbatim:

Pet (born ~1955, wild; died 8/2/06 at Portland Zoo)
This wild-caught female died at age 51 from foot disease (osteomyelitis) and arthritis. She suffered for years from severe foot disease – recurrent lesions,, abscesses, ulcers, defects, cracked and undermined nails, etc. that required almost daily intervention from keepers. Her records contain voluminous notes about cleaning out infections, lesions and pockets in her feet and constant debridement of lesions– cutting away of dead, necrotic tissue. There are numerous references in the records to pain that Pet is in after what vets term “atraumatic foot trims.” They note that she remains in “prolonged lateral recumbency after foot trimmings. At one point (Dec. 21, 2002) vets note that a lesion covering 20 percent of Pet’s caudal sole would not be debrided as “it would leave no protective layer for Pet to stand on. On 24 Dec 02, the records indicate that the 10 cm defect on this foot has left the fatty tissue under the skin exposed. Pet’s feet are so damaged that she is frequently made to wear sandals.

Chendrawasi (Chendra) – (born ~1993 wild)
This 13 year old female was orphaned and hand-reared in Malaysia. She is on loan from the Malaysian government.

Chendra’s records show a strong case for how quickly elephants’ feet become damaged once in captivity as there are records included of her foot condition prior to coming from Malaysia. Within just two months she begins to have chronic foot problems. stereotypcial Also, she was radiographed with no defects upon coming to the zoo and within a year has problems with fractured toes probably as a result of overgrown nails. …Her pacing is special concern given the hard flooring she is now on for the first time. Main immediate concern is foot ulceration due to excessive wear. Vets. Recommend extra bedding in her stalls to ease the transition for her feet from “forest and river ground to the hard flooring of captivity.”

On April 19, 2003 vets note a “classical nail abscess” which is “pretty alarming in an animal this young and small.”

“Rose-Tu (Rose or Rosey) – (born 8/31/94 at Portland Zoo)
Although she is a young elephant, Rose has foot problems, cracked and overgrown nails, sole fissures and bone fractures in the P2 and P3 digits of her back feet. Records attribute to “possible substrate problem” or “repetitive stress injury.

“Sung-Surin (Shine) – (born 12/26/82 at Portland Zoo)
This female was born at the Oregon Zoo. She has chronic foot problems. The records start in 1996, when she is just 13.5 years old. AT that time she has an infected nail lesion on her right front foot that is chronic through end of records (2005). This nail lesion/abscess has frequent “blowouts.” By July 04 the lesion has extended to the space between nails 4 and 5. She also has fractured and abnormal toes.

Foot problems are mentioned in nearly every entry in her records 1996-2005. Several mentions of “copious bleeding” after debriding foot ulcer. In Nov. 1999, a power sander was used to “rough up” the bottom of her sole. Foot condition steadily declines over this period. In Feb. 2004, a change in the angulation of her right limb is noted and vets believe it is beginning of degenerative joint disease (DJD). Also note that it appears that she is dragging her foot when she walks.” (2)

But the Oregon Zoo is not alone.  Dr. Bradshaw also states:  “Foot ailments are among the most common and debilitating symptoms of elephants in zoos and circuses.  In contrast to the almost continual movement of free-ranging elephants on grass and soil substrates, some elephants in captivity spend twenty hours a day on unyielding concrete and asphalt, with very little room and exercise.  A thirty-plus-year study by the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP), based on more than thirty-four thousand sightings of wild elephant groups containing up to 550 individuals, found no chronic foot or weight problems in the Amboseli elephant population.  In contrast, a survey derived from public records by the animal protection organization In Defense of Animals (IDA) showed that in forty-six AZA accredited zoos, holding 135 elephants, 62 percent of the elephants have severe foot disease and 42 percent have joint disorders.  Toni, a wild-caught Asian elephant at the National Zoo, was euthanized at the premature age of thirty-nine.  Her feet, like those of most other zoo elephants, were cracked, infected, and had nail abscesses…  Mel Richardson, [the veterinarian] who observed Toni shortly before her death, noted:

‘…the concrete; the packed unyielding abrasive substrate inside and outside; the lack of exercise and normal use of the elephant’s feet and limbs—climbing, digging, walking, wading into streams, kicking logs, and foraging …. [Elephants] evolved to travel miles each day on uneven natural substrate using their feet to find and apprehend food.  To keep them healthy we must provide that opportunity as well.’” (3)

Similar conditions exist among captive elephants in Thailand, Nepal and India.  In my blog post next month, I hope to go international by sharing comments from Carol Buckley, who not only oversees the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, but also heads Elephant Aid International, which conducts foot-trimming missions, such as a recent one to Bardia, Nepal.  In addition, I hope to share a report based on information from the Indian newspaper, Deccan Herald, which involves Compassion Unlimited Plus Action (CUPA) in Bangalore.

My ten years of eight-hour days on solid concrete have left their mark on my feet.  But the condition of my feet seems like nothing when compared with that of my big-brain, mammal companions who, as Dr. Bradshaw observed, might spend twenty hours a day on unyielding concrete and asphalt – with bare feet.


1.  Bradshaw, Elephants on the Edge, pp.105-6.

2.  http://www.helpelephants.com/oregon_zoo_health_status.html

3.  Bradshaw, Elephants on the Edge, pp.104-5.

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