Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol and his colleagues conducted a similar study on U.K. zoo elephants in the late 2000s. I asked him whether it is possible to keep an elephant physically and mentally healthy in a zoo. His answer was succinct: “No.” The elephants he studied spent up to 83 percent of their time indoors, often in cramped conditions; the majority had abnormal gaits; 75 percent were overweight; more than 50 percent had behavioral tics; and one individual displayed tics for 14 hours in a single day.
Captive elephants also have higher rates of infertility and die younger on average than their uncaged counterparts. Whereas wild elephants migrate great distances through the forest or savanna in search of food and water—eating huge amounts of tough, fibrous grasses and shrubs that are difficult to digest—zoo elephants spend too many hours standing idle on concrete and consume calorie-rich foods they would rarely encounter in their native habitat. Researchers have also learned that many zoo elephants do not get the rest they need because they do not like to lie down and sleep on stone or other hard surfaces.
Few zoos can adequately re-create the complex social life of wild elephants. Female elephants in captivity are often strangers acquired from here and there. Any friendships that do form can dissolve in an instant when a zoo decides to relocate an animal. “Sometimes people treat these creatures like furniture,” Moss says.
Researchers used to think that male elephants, which leave their clans in young adulthood, were loners. They now know, however, that male elephants socialize extensively with one another. Yet zoos mix males and females in ways that would never occur in the wild and try to offload adult males if they become too cantankerous or lustful. Now that the evidence of the elephant’s intellect and emotional lifeis no longer mostly anecdotal the zoological community faces even more pressure to answer a daunting question: Why keep elephants in captivity at all? Zoos usually give two main reasons: to rescue elephants from dire situations, such as the threat of poachers or the stress of living in so-called rehabilitation centers in Asia that keep the creatures leashed to trees; and to teach the public how amazing elephants are, in hopes of promoting their conservation.
These arguments have become increasingly tenuous over time. Few elephants in zoos today were rescued from an awful life; instead they were born in captivity. In the mid-2000s zoos embarked on an especially aggressive captive elephant breeding program, trying to compensate for all the animals they had lost to disease and frailty. "For every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die," concluded a comprehensive 2012 investigative report by The Seattle Times.