Diane Toroian Keaggy, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 5, 2005

A Club Med for elephants, the River's Edge at the St. Louis Zoo features waterfalls, swimming pools and rolling hills. The Zoo's seven Asian elephants are offered a smorgasbord of hay and bark, a variety of toys and, for its younger residents, plenty of romance.

But even with all the amenities, are the elephants at the River's Edge and exhibits like it happy? Recent elephant deaths and the decision by two zoos to halt their programs has prompted zoo leaders and activists to ask that very question.

"This is a challenge that zoos need to talk about and that the public needs to learn about, too," said Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan shortly after he decided close his exhibit because of the harsh Michigan winters. "By many indices, elephants just don't do very well in captivity."

While most zoos maintain that elephant exhibits promote vital research and conservation efforts, other animal experts say zoos are too small and too cold for these highly intelligent animals.

"As hard as they try, the modern-day zoo does not have the space for elephants," said Carol Buckley, executive director of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. "In their homeland, elephants roam 30 to 50 miles a day. Even the best zoos are incapable of serving their needs."

The St. Louis Zoo disagrees. While Detroit plans to move its two elephants, St. Louis is preparing for the births within the next 16 months of two calves, both sired by Raja. The Zoo built its $6.6 million elephant facility and one-acre yard in 1999 in order to expand its herd and bolster its breeding program.

Zoo president Jeffrey Bonner believes the exhibit satisfies both the public's fascination with the cute creatures and the complex physical and social needs of the growing herd.

"I couldn't come to work here if I thought we weren't looking out for the best interest of all of the animals," said Bonner. "I would be heartbroken."

Too small, too cold

But what exactly is an elephant's best interest? Opinions vary among advocates. Buckley, the Humane Society of the United States and other animal activists, argue that elephants roam because they need to, not simply to find food. Without exercise, they say zoo elephants can suffer from severe foot and joint problems that can lead to premature death. Joint disease appears to have contributed to the death of a San Francisco Zoo elephant last year. That zoo has since closed its elephant exhibit.

"Even if you put food in front of them, you are not meeting their needs socially and physically," said Buckley. "When you provide some of their needs but not all of them, you run into neurotic behavior. The zoos think because they are quadrupling the size (of their exhibits), they are accomplishing that, but they're not."

Bonner and many others in the zoo community disagree. In St. Louis, the elephants spend most days wandering through their yards. During hot St. Louis days, they may take refuge under a tree, while in the winter they sometimes cluster underneath special heat lamps. But once the temperatures dip to 35 degrees and the winds pick up, the elephants typically stay inside their stalls.

"Do they have to walk 50 miles a day. Of course not, but they will if they have to," said Bonner. "I think the size of the space is absolutely an issue, but it also important to look at the quality of the space. Is there a range of activities they can engage in? Is it a rich environment? That makes a huge difference."

Also important to Bonner is the interaction among the elephants. While males like Raja are solitary, female elephants develop complex social relationships.

"We know the social environment is really integral to the animals' health and well-being," said Bonner. "If we want to make sure the animals are happy, we would allow them to engage in behaviors they are hardwired to engage in. I think they are hardwired to be social. They are hardwired to reproduce. So, yes, we give them opportunities to engage in those behaviors."

Good record

The St. Louis Zoo's program has come a long way since the days of elephant shows. Even Buckley calls the program "progressive" compared to those of other institutions.

Zookeepers no longer use whips or any other sort of force to assert dominance. Instead, they train their elephants the way many of us train our puppies - with verbal cues and treats. All contact is conducted through protective panels - a management style that protects the keeper and the elephant, which is free to ignore the commands without the fear of a swat. Many zoos still use dominance techniques and physical intimidation to get their animals to comply to its keepers.

The zoo staff and facility also meet or exceed new elephant guidelines drafted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which governs some 200 North American institutions. About half of the 80 zoos that host elephants report they are not yet in compliance with the new guidelines, which go into effect next year.

And the Zoo hosts a herd large enough to satisfy its females' social needs. Like Buckley and the Humane Society, Bonner objects to exhibits of two or less elephants.

"We feel pretty strongly that is not a good number and that those elephants need to be integrated into larger social groups," said Bonner.

Cash cows or ambassadors?

Zoo critics have little hope that all zoos will abandon their elephant programs. Big, gray and cute, elephants are what folks in the zoo business call "charismatic." Yes, snakes and lemurs and turtles all play a vital role in the ecosystem, but they will never capture the public's adoration like penguins, bears and elephants.

Bonner bristles when critics complain that elephants are cash cows. In addition to $500,000 for staff and training, the Zoo spends some $50,000 on food. Vet care, research and hormone monitoring, utilities and water and grounds maintenance cost thousands more. American zoos also support some 90 conservation programs in the wild.

"We're adding two calves and we've added two people (keepers)," said Bonner. "It's a wonderful thing to do, but they cost a lot of money."

Bonner acknowledges Raja delivers thousands of visitors each year. He hopes Raja's popularity translates into a deeper understanding of the Asian elephant's plight. Only 40,000 remain in the quickly disappearing wild.

"There is a safety-net philosophy there. It's important to have Asian elephants as an ambassador to their kind," said Bonner. "All species have intrinsic value and worth, but there are clearly some flagship species that if you can save the habitat where they live, you are going to save everything else with it. In our community, we know Raja is iconographic."

Reporter Diane Toroian Keaggy writes about cultural trends and institutions for the Post-Dispatch.
Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com