Is Your Zoo Ranked One of the 'Terrible Ten' for Elephants?

From corporate-owned parks to roadside attractions, these 10 zoos have been accused of mistreating their elephants.

Natural Bridge Zoo, Natural Bridge, Virginia. (Photo: Flickr)

Jan 15, 2015· 6 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Enter any zoo in America, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot an elephant enclosure. And most likely, there’s an unhappy elephant inside. Deprived of the ability to freely roam and socialize, the highly intelligent pachyderms are often isolated when placed in captivity—a big stressor on an animal more tied to its family group than many human cultures, according to animal rights groups.

“Zoos are simply not appropriate for elephants,” said Toni Frohoff, elephant and cetacean scientist for In Defense of Animals.

And while Frohoff said zoos are inherently bad places for an elephant to be, some are worse than others. Much worse.

For 11 years running, the environmental group has compiled a “Top Ten” or “Terrible Ten” list of North American zoos for elephants.

“While touting conservation of the species, zoos are in fact causing more harm then good, basically exploiting them as entertainment,” Frohoff said. “This list removes the veil that many of these zoos are propagating.”

To compile the list IDA looks at a number of factors, including the size of the animal’s enclosure, violations reported by regulatory agencies, use of bullhooks to control elephants, solitary confinement, and public complaints.

And this year’s “Terrible Ten” runs the gamut of zoo operations—from cheap, roadside attractions like the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia, to Disney’s multimillion-dollar Animal Kingdom elephant enclosure in Florida.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which disputes the list, has accredited eight out of the 10 zoos listed.

"For anyone to say the elephants at AZA-accredited zoos receive anything but the best care is simply not accurate," Rob Vernon, AZA's senior vice president, said in an email.

Frohoff hopes the list heightens public awareness of elephant welfare in the same way the documentary Blackfish did of the treatment of orcas in captivity.

“Between the illegal poaching incidents, illegal trade of ivory, and declining numbers of the species, 2015 could be the year of the elephant,” Frohoff said.

So who made this year’s list? Take a look:

1. Natural Bridge Zoo, Virginia

It’s the first time the roadside attraction (pictured above) has made IDA’s list, but Frohoff says that’s because it was just overlooked, not because it was ever a good elephant habitat. The zoo has kept a female African elephant named Asha alone for more than a decade.

She is forced to give rides to park visitors, and is controlled by handlers wielding bullhooks—a steel-tipped baton with a hook at the end that is used to control elephants through fear and painful punishment, IDA says.

IDA received a number of complaints from the public about the elephant handlers’ use of bullhooks, reportedly jabbing the elephant in the mouth. In the off-season, the elephant spends the Virginia winters alone in a barn, chained to a concrete floor.

2. San Antonio Zoo, Texas

The San Antonio Zoo is not just bad for elephants, it also made the World’s Worst Zoos list in 2010. But for the seventh year now, it’s remained on IDA’s radar. That’s because the zoo’s last surviving elephant, Lucky, is alone and isolated. Her companion, Alport, died in 2007, and Lucky remained alone for nearly three years before another elephant, Boo, was introduced, but the two were not compatible. Boo died in 2013, leaving Lucky alone again.

Last year, the zoo hired a new director, Tim Morrow—who came from SeaWorld San Antonio. “IDA hopes that Mr. Morrow will do the right thing for Lucky and free her from a situation so miserable it has been recognized worldwide,” Frohoff said.

San Antonio Zoo. (Photo: Flickr)

3. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, California

An environment carved out between a freeway on one side and roller coasters on the other might not be the best for elephants. But that’s what resident African elephant Valerie and Asian elephant Liz get at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. IDA says the animal’s sensitive hearing makes the daily audio assault on these elephants even more problematic.

The park is known for its use of bullhooks and shocking elephants with stun guns to train them to allow humans to ride them.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo, California. (Photo: Flickr)

4. Buttonwood Park Zoo, Massachusetts

Elephants aren’t equipped to handle New England weather, but that hasn’t stopped Buttonwood Park Zoo from keeping the animals outside. IDA has received reports of hypothermia and frostbite due to neglect, and of repeated abuse by keepers against the zoo’s two aging Asian elephants, Ruth and Emily.

The zoo was fined by the United States Department of Agriculture last year for failure to protect Ruth from inclement weather—she reportedly suffered frostbite on her ears and tail after venturing out through an unlocked door into freezing weather, resulting in the partial amputation of her tail.

Buttonwood Park Zoo, New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Photo: Flickr)

5. Bronx Zoo, New York

In 2006, officials announced the zoo would shut down its elephant exhibit if any one of its three elephants, Happy, Patty, or Maxine, died. Nine years later, the elephants are still alive, forced to endure New York’s harsh winters and the zoo’s small enclosures. Happy was attacked by her companions in 2006, and has lived in an isolated enclosure ever since.

“The Bronx Zoo does not have the space, the resources, or the weather conditions that elephants need to live a reasonably healthy life,” Frohoff said.

Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York. (Photo: Flickr)

6. Buffalo Zoo, New York

Snow flurries are typical in Buffalo, New York, and the zoo’s two female Asian elephants, both born in the warmer climes of India, live in a small barn during the winter. Buffalo is the third-oldest zoo in the United States, and it shows in the outdated elephant exhibit. It's on IDA’s list due to its lack of space and outdated indoor facility. Additionally, the two elephants reportedly are kept separated, and handlers continue to use bullhooks to control them.

Buffalo Zoo, Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Flickr)

7. Wildlife Safari, Oregon

In November 2014, a 44-year-old African elephant named Alice died at Wildlife Safari—she was the second elephant to die at the facility in four years. Tiki, a 40-year-old female, died in 2010. For the IDA, both deaths raised a red flag because female African elephants are considered to be in the prime of their lives into their 40s.

The elephants still alive at Wildlife Safari are used to giving “car washes” for fundraising and entertainment. Zoo handlers use bullhooks to keep the animals under control during the publicity stunts. This is the fourth year that Wildlife Safari has made IDA’s Ten Worst list.

Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon. (Photo: Flickr)

8. Milwaukee County Zoo, Wisconsin

Two females African elephants are crammed into the zoo’s small barn for large parts of Wisconsin’s inhospitable winter months. One of the barn’s walls is a viewing window, which allows the public to see the mundane, inadequate facility where the animals spend most of their time.

“These magnificent elephants have been cramped and cold for too long; they belong in a climate-appropriate, elephant-friendly sanctuary where they would be free to choose their companions, forage on grass and trees, and just be elephants again,” Frohoff said in a statement.

Milwaukee County Zoo. (Photo: Flickr)

9. Rosamond Gifford Zoo, New York

This year marks the fourth time Rosamond Gifford Zoo has been placed on IDA’s list for its practice of separating elephants from their mothers too early, and for transferring elephants multiple times between zoos. In 2014, the zoo separated a six-year-old elephant from its mother and transferred him to African Lion Safari, a drive-through attraction in Canada. That’s about half the time an elephant stays with its mother in the wild.

“Early separation is extremely traumatic for mother and calf and is known to inhibit normal behavioral and social development in calves,” Frohoff said.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse, New York. (Photo: Flickr)

10. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Florida

The final spot on this year’s list goes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This summer, a pregnant elephant at the park was transferred to the National Elephant Center in Florida, but the female and her unborn calf died as a result of birth complications.

“Zoos generally do not transfer pregnant females because of the great stress of travel and potential complications, yet DAK trucked Moyo—who also reportedly had a ‘rare hormonal issue’— to this unproven Florida center,” IDA said in statement.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo: Flickr)