As for educational outreach, modern technology has rendered zoos obsolete. “When I was a kid we had no television and even when we did wildlife images were very few,” Harris says. “You went to the zoo to interact with elephants, to ride on them and touch them—there was no other way to get a sense of them. Now of course there’s an information overload. You can get a sense of scale and see all kinds of wonderful behaviors from photography and films that you would never see in captivity.” Consider how much one can learn from vivid scenes of wild elephants in a nature documentary of Planet Earth caliber compared with the experience of staring at an arthritic bobble-headed zoo elephant.
Other scientists think that, even if there are few good reasons to keep elephants in zoos in the first place, arguing for an abrupt end to elephant captivity is naive and idealistic, especially outside North America and Europe. “Although I believe all elephants should be wild, unfortunately that is not realistic," Plotnik says. In Asia, where he works, people have been using elephants as beasts of burden for centuries and currently have thousands of the animals captive in camps. Suddenly releasing all those animals is simply not feasible; there may not even be enough wild habitat left to accommodate them all. Plotnik thinks the best way forward is maintaining the wild Asian elephant population through conservation and slowly phasing out the captive one by finding new, equally lucrative jobs for elephant caretakers.
Moss wants something similar for elephants in zoos in the U.S. and Europe: “I would like to see them live out their lives and have no more breeding or importation.” Meehan hopes the kind of information she has collected will help improve the well-being of zoo elephants. In recent years at least a few zoos have been trying to use animal welfare science to make their elephant enclosures more like sanctuaries. The Oregon Zoo in Portland is close to remodeling its elephant habitat in a way it claims will improve the livelihood of its four male and four female Asian elephants. Elephant Lands, set to open in 2015, is a hilly 2.5-hectare habitat covered mostly in deep sand rather than concrete and featuring a 490,000-liter pool for wallowing, bathing and playing. Elephants will be free to roam from one part of the terrain to another, explains elephant curator Bob Lee, which should hopefully allow males and females to interact as they choose. Various feeding machines will provide elephants with food at random intervals, because studies have linked such unpredictability to healthier body weights. Other feeders will exercise the elephants’ trunks and brains with out-of-reach snacks and mechanical puzzles. Refurbishing elephant enclosures so they are roomier and more intellectually stimulating is at once an acknowledgment and dismissal of the research on elephant intelligence and welfare.