If you visit a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA)–the organization that sets the standards for US and other North American zoos–everything you see will make it easy and natural to think that all is well: that the elephants are well taken care of, that they’re safe from harm, that they have everything they need. The truth is, elephants have nothing close to what they need, and their lives consist of one trauma after another, day in and day out. Zoos systematically engage in three particularly harmful, unjust practices, which, at their core, speak to the elephants’ total loss of freedom: captive breeding, the international elephant trade, and insufficient space.

Captive Breeding

Captive breeding is one of the most harmful practices zoos subject elephants to. Whether by forced mating or artificial insemination, the breeding of elephants by zoos is traumatic for all of the elephants involved. Nothing about it is natural, and the birth of elephants only creates further suffering.

All breeding-age elephants are entered into the AZA’s Species Survival Plan Program (SSP), which seeks to grow and maintain a genetically diverse North American population of Asian and African elephants. Captive breeding removes all elements of choice for mate selection, which is critical for wild elephants when breeding. This lack of choice extends to other aspects of the captive breeding process. For example, elephants at AZA-accredited zoos are subjected to routine and invasive medical procedures to test when they’re fertile, collect semen, and prepare them for artificial insemination. Many of these procedures require elephants to be placed in an elephant restraint device (ERD) or shackled so they can’t move one or more of their feet. Even the birthing process fails to remotely resemble what would happen in the wild, with female elephants often made to give birth in a barred, industrial barn stall, where they too are restrained

Zoos frequently move both male and female elephants from zoo to zoo to facilitate breeding. Sometimes referred to as transfer abuse, this constant movement of elephants for breeding often causes severe psychological and physical harm, with the elephants engaging in stereotypical behaviors indicative of distress.

Given what we know of elephants’ complex cognitive, emotional, and social lives, each time zoos move them is a traumatic experience (added to the trauma of living in a zoo) as they’re separated from their offspring and other elephants they have formed close bonds with, loaded into crates, trucked hundreds of miles to a new facility, and thrown into an unfamiliar and inappropriate environment with new elephants whom they are intended to breed with–only to be forced to do it all again a few years later.

The elephants born in captivity only replenish zoos’ elephant populations–no US zoo elephant has ever been reintegrated into a wild herd, nor is there any plan for them to be. Additionally, the birth rate of captive elephants is extremely low, the infant mortality rate is high, and most captive elephants die at a much younger age than their wild counterparts. This is what the zoo model of conservation looks like. Far from promoting survival of the species, the SSP destroys the lives of individual elephants and merely keeps zoos in business.

The AZA’s celebration of their pointless and cruel elephant captive breeding program is abhorrent. They are not helping the survival of Asian and African elephants by breeding them in captivity only to imprison them for life.

International Elephant Trade

Many people don’t know that elephants are still imported to the US from other countries to be held captive and used for breeding in AZA-accredited zoos.

The zoos that participate in the live elephant trade claim they’re helping elephants by bringing them to the US–for example, saving them from being killed as part of what a country’s government might claim is a necessary effort to control the elephant population, as has happened in Africa as recently as 2016.

In truth, these governments are entering into lucrative deals with US zoos as they ignore and dismiss outcry from elephant scientists as well as offers to help the elephants find refuge in their natural habitats, as detailed by The New York Times Magazine in a 2018 investigation.

In other situations, such as the November 2022 importation of two young female Asian elephants (a mother and daughter pair) to the National Zoo in Washington from the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands, the zoo was explicit about its true intentions in participating in the live elephant trade, stating that it hoped both elephants would become pregnant by one of their bull elephants and produce calves for the zoo to exhibit.

Soon after these elephants arrive at US zoos, they’re almost always separated from each other–mother from son, sister from sister, and so on–to go wherever the AZA deems them most necessary for the replenishment of elephant exhibits.

All of these arrangements serve zoos’ bottom lines, not elephants.

Insufficient Space

Even the “best” zoo comes nowhere close to providing physically or psychologically sufficient space to elephants.

The home ranges of free-living elephants are huge, and they travel vast distances across them. African savannah elephants roam habitats as large as 2.7 million acres. Asian forest elephants roam habitats as large as 200,000 acres (the size of the home ranges of African and Asian elephants are naturally different). These vast, complex environments provide elephants endless opportunities to exercise their freedom of choice as well as their bodies and minds–for example, collectively deciding where to go, what to do, or how to solve a problem.

Under AZA standards, the outdoor enclosure of an elephant exhibit can be as small as 500 square meters, or approximately 0.12 acres, and zoos may apply for a special exemption from this if they can’t meet those minimal space requirements. One of the largest exhibits in the US, at the North Carolina Zoo, is a total of seven acres, and six African elephants share this space, which is .0000025 of what they’d have in their natural habitat.

Elephant exhibits are not only incredibly small; they also lack the ecological richness of elephants’ natural habitats. Food troughs strategically placed around the exhibit to maximize viewing opportunities for zoo visitors are the elephants’ primary form of enrichment. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, many elephants in zoos spend their days standing on unnatural, hard surfaces, like packed dirt. In cold-weather climates, they’re confined to largely concrete barns during the winter months.

The physical and psychological impacts of these tiny, barren exhibits are devastating. For example, most zoo elephants are obese. They develop painful foot and joint problems that often lead to euthanasia. They develop brain damage, including the thinning of their cerebral cortex–the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.

If you see elephants in zoos swaying, bobbing, or engaging in other repetitive movements–behavior that doesn’t occur in free-living elephants–this is not dancing or excitement, as zoos would have you believe. It’s a response to trauma, stress, and boredom of which the lack of physically and psychologically sufficient space is a key part.