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Little Rock Zoo a ‘Nursing Home’ for Older Elephants

senior elephants

Story at-a-glance -

  • Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas has faced scrutiny in recent years for the deaths of three elephants in a five-year period
  • Little Rock Zoo states they are one of few facilities that only takes in older, female elephants, and, as a result, more frequent deaths are not unexpected
  • As increasing numbers of exotic animals are retired from circuses and other performance venues, the question of where such animals should live out their lives has become a pressing issue
  • True animal sanctuaries allow animals to live out their lives in peace and with dignity

By Dr. Becker

Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas has faced scrutiny in recent years for the deaths of three elephants in a five-year period. Animal welfare group In Defense of Animals (IDA) ranked Little Rock Zoo No. 3 on a list of the top 10 worst zoos for elephants, describing it as a place “where elephants go to die.” According to IDA:

The Little Rock Zoo earns a top spot on IDA’s list for its role as partner in crime in the most shameful inter-zoo transfer of 2013, for housing elephants in a tiny, antiquated exhibit and for using bullhooks [controversial tools used to prod elephants that may cause them pain].”

The inter-zoo transfer they refer to occurred around the same time as the deaths of two elephants — 60-year-old Ellen and her companion, 61-year-old Mary — in 2011.

Two elephants, Zina and Jewell, were moved to Little Rock Zoo from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) suggested they may have been placed prematurely in the same enclosure with Ellen, possibly causing her death (Zima has a history of aggression).1

In 2013, 63-year-old Jewell was euthanized after she was found lying on her side unable to get up, perhaps after having a stroke.

Since then, Little Rock Zoo has taken in two other elephants, Sophie and Babe, who used to perform with the circus. Zina, who is described as “less social” than the other two, is kept in a separate enclosure and allowed to interact with the others only through a fence.

Is the Little Rock Zoo a ‘Nursing Home’ for Old Elephants?

While IDA has called for the elephants to be retired to a sanctuary because of the zoo’s limited space, Little Rock Zoo states they are one of few facilities that only takes in older, female elephants. As a result, more frequent deaths are not unexpected, according to Little Rock Zoo keepers.

Kristin Warner, the zoo’s elephant manager, told Arkansas Online, “We consider ourselves like a nursing home for older female elephants.”2

Elephants’ maximum lifespans continue to evade scientists. While wild African elephants appear to rarely live past 50, Asian elephants have lived up to 86 years in captivity. It’s believed that most live to their mid- to late 50s, and those coming to Little Rock Zoo often come with health conditions.

Sophie, who is 47, suffers from a uterus infection. Her size and thick skin make surgery to cure the infection impractical, if not impossible, so she is being treated to improve her quality of life.

Despite the backlash from animal welfare groups, the elephants’ keepers described their devotion to caring for the animals. As Arkansas Online reported, Warner said:3

“We treat them very much like our family … I’m here holidays, snow days. It’s a huge commitment. A lot of people don’t realize. I’m up here weekends — there’s really no time off … We certainly do not see them as pets, but we are attached to them.

… It’s pretty easy to get attached to an elephant. They all have different personalities. They form a bond with their keeper.

They know their name and different commands … It’s hard when you see them sick and not feeling well, but it’s also so rewarding when you see them running around healthy, playing, chasing guineas.”

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Where Is the Best Place for Older Elephants to ‘Retire?’

It’s getting harder to get and keep exotic animals like elephants, including for small zoos and traveling circuses — a huge step forward for animal rights. For instance, more than 40 U.S. cities now outlaw performances involving exotic animals.

Worldwide, 30 countries have banned the use of wild animals in traveling circuses. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it would retire its elephants by 2018.4 The question then becomes where the animals should go once they’re given their freedom.

Animal sanctuaries must work hard and fast to find room for the influx of rescued exotic animals. Some may end up in zoos like Little Rock Zoo or, in the case of a group of Ringling elephants that were retired in May 2016, to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida.

While the elephants going to Ringling’s 200-acre center no longer have to perform tricks, male elephants (which tend to be more aggressive) are not typically free to roam the grassy expanses and are fed in a barn while tethered with an ankle chain.

Ringling also uses the controversial bullhooks and is also continuing to breed elephants at the center, with plans to open it up to tourists in the future. (As a side note, the elephants are also donating blood samples as part of a cancer research trial, as researchers are curious to find out why elephants rarely develop cancer).5

The point is that the term “sanctuary” can mean many things, and it’s possible for an animal to live a better life at a “zoo” than a “sanctuary” — or vice versa — depending on how the facility is run. According to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS):6

“Experts estimate that there are about 1,200 exotic animal facilities which provide the barest minimum of care for thousands of animals with little or no knowledge of animals’ nutritional or behavioral needs.

These facilities often breed animals to provide cute babies as an attraction for public display and for sale, and many depend on public sale of ‘treats’ for the animals as the major source of food.

These facilities often function as the end-of-the-line for surplus animals who can no longer earn dollars for mainstream zoos, circuses, traveling shows and exotic pets. They often call themselves ‘sanctuaries’ while they continue to breed and exploit the animals in their care.” 

True Animal Sanctuaries Should Not Exploit the Animals in Their Care

It’s clear these intelligent animals deserve to live their lives in peace and with plenty of room to roam, species-appropriate food and a focus on environmental enrichment catered to each species. In the wild, elephants roam over great distances while foraging for food and interacting with other elephants.

If you’re considering donating your time or other resources to an animal sanctuary, be sure it’s one that truly has the animals’ best interests, whether elephants, big cats, bears or others, at heart. PAWS continued:7

A wildlife sanctuary is a place of refuge where abused, injured and abandoned captive wildlife may live in peace and dignity for the remainder of their lives …

A true sanctuary respects the integrity of individual animals, providing safe, healthy and secure refuge in enclosures specifically designed for the unique animal which it supports … No true sanctuary should be involved in breeding or commercial exploitation of the animals in its care.”