Captive Elephant Welfare

I wrote this paper for Malini Suchak’s Animal Welfare class in spring 2015. It is all about creating sanctuary for elephants, and is the basis for what I want to do. (Sorry about the formatting!)

Captive Elephant Welfare:

Creating the Ideal Sanctuary for Former Zoo Elephants

There are currently almost 300 elephants living in 78 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited institutions in the United States (Soltis & Brown, 2010). According to AZA, the elephants living in the United States are essential for conservation because they provide research and education opportunities and serve as “ambassadors for their wild counterparts and the wild habitats in which they live (AZA and Elephants, 2014).” The elephants are cared for in accordance to AZA’s Animal Care and Management standards. Though AZA claims that the standards are rigorous and science-based (AZA and elephants, 2014), others in the animal welfare community are not satisfied with the state of captive elephants in American zoos. Elephant welfare advocates have two main concerns for zoo elephants: a.) Zoos cannot provide adequate space, and b.) Zoos fail to create and maintain proper elephant groups (Cohn, 2006). Animal protection organizations are campaigning for public support against elephants and zoos and even pushing for legislation to remove elephants from zoos (Carlstead, Mench, Meehan, & Brown, 2013).

Whether or not legislation is enacted in the future, some zoos have responded to public pressure and have phased out, or are in the process of phasing out, their elephant exhibits (Cohn, 2006). In some cases, the exhibits are closing prior to the death of the elephants housed there, creating a need for elephant sanctuaries in the United States. These elephant sanctuaries should strive to provide a home for “retired” elephants that is more conducive to good welfare than their former institutions.

 Animal welfare: Definition and measurements

Mason and Veasey (2010) write that welfare refers to “an animal’s affective… state: what it feels”, both physically and emotionally. Fraser (2008, 229-232) describes three criteria that make up welfare: 1.) Basic health and functioning, 2) Affective states, and 3.) Natural living. A balance of all three is needed to achieve truly good welfare.

Basic health and functioning can be assessed based on measures such as morbidity, reproduction, and disease prevalence, and may be the easiest criteria to evaluate.

Measuring affective states involves looking at both physical and behavioral patterns. Certain chemicals and neurotransmitters are released in the body in response to stress or other affective states, which lead to physiological signs such as increased heart rate and pupil dilation. Preference and avoidance behaviors and cognitive bias (which indicates states of optimism or pessimism), along with signals between conspecifics, are also helpful in deciphering affective states. The presence of stereotypic behavior is sometimes seen in captive elephant populations and can indicate poor affective states (Mason & Veasey, 2009).

Natural living is thought to promote good welfare by providing an environment that allows animals to “live in accordance with their adaptations” (Fraser, 2008, 232). To achieve good welfare by this criteria, the environment, activity schedules, behaviors exhibited, and social groupings should be comparable to those seen in the wild.

Carlstead, et al. (2013) developed a framework of seven welfare principles for captive elephants that fall into the three criteria. These principles can help to further clarify the definition of good welfare in captive elephants.

Under basic health and functioning (which these authors call “physical well being and comfort), they list:

“1. Feeding and avoiding obesity

  1. Freedom of movement to seek physical comfort
  2. Optimal health.”


To meet the natural living criteria (termed “engagement with environment”), the authors listed:

“4. Species-appropriate social behaviors,

  1. Species-appropriate nonsocial behaviors
  2. Good human-elephant relationships”

The seventh principle serves to meet the affective states criteria (or “positive psychological state”).

“7. Avoidance of negative emotions (e.g., fear, frustration and apathy) and experience of positive emotions (security, contentment)” (Carlstead, et al., 2013).

Carlstead, et al. (2013) also proposed indicators and data collection methods that are to be used to carry out a multi-institutional epidemiological research project called The Elephant Welfare Project. This study could prove to be extremely useful in improving captive elephant welfare in the United States in both zoo and sanctuary settings.

Although the following will be far from a complete review of elephant welfare needs, research will be presented on some of the prevalent themes within each of the three criteria. Furthermore, ideas for creating an “ideal” elephant sanctuary by meeting the framework described by Carlstead, et al. (2013) will be presented.

Elephant Welfare: Creating a sanctuary

Natural living provides great insight into the two other criteria of basic health and functioning and affective states in elephants, making it difficult to talk about the three criteria separately. Therefore, the following sections will discuss basic health and functioning and affective states in relation to natural living. It is critical to understand elephants’ natural habitat, behaviors, and family structure in order to begin conceptualizing a captive living environment that fosters good welfare.

I. Natural living and basic health and functioning

a. Feeding and roaming behaviors. Elephants live in a variety of habitats in the wild: deserts, grassland, swampland, seasonal forests, tropical forests, and moorlands. Sufficient water is the most important aspect for elephants in the wild. They are adaptive to various seasons and locations, but the intelligence that stems from this need to be flexible also leads to greater suffering when the environment is inappropriate (Veasey, 2006). Elephants in the wild spend 60%- 80% of their time foraging for food. In captive settings where diet is simply presented to the elephants, the food is consumed very quickly, which leaves large amounts of time each day unfilled (Veasey, 2006).

While amount of daily roaming in wild populations varies depending on factors such as food, water, and mates, it is known that elephants sometimes roam up to 50 miles per day (Hutchins, 2006). AZA guidelines require a minimum of 5,400 square feet per elephant (AZA Standards, 2011), which calculates out to about eight elephants per acre. Leslie Schobert, former general curator at Los Angeles Zoo, believes that elephants should have at least 100 acres in which to roam (Cohn, 2006.)

Appropriate sites for a sanctuary can be found in most of the United States as elephants are adaptive to various terrains. Patricia Derby, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, suggests that elephants not be exposed to freezing temperatures (Cohn, 2006). Taking the advice of Derby and Schobert, the ideal American elephant sanctuary would consist of at least 100 acres of land located in one of the southernmost states. Some or all of the elephants’ daily diets should be distributed throughout the sanctuary to allow for roaming and foraging activity. Elephants may be given the opportunity to participate in staff-led walks each day to increase movement but will not be required to do so. In this way, the sanctuary will be striving to meet several of the principles laid out by Carlstead, et al. (2013): 1. Feeding and avoiding obesity, 2. Freedom of movement to seek physical comfort, and 5. Species-appropriate nonsocial behaviors.

b. Disease, Reproduction, and Morbidity. To address Carlstead, et al.’s (2013) third principle, optimal health, disease prevalence, reproduction, and mortality must be addressed. Diseases in captive elephant populations include herpes viruses, tuberculosis, and arterial disease; however, all of these diseases are seen in wild populations as well (Hutchins, 2006). The most oft cited physical ailments in captive elephants are foot problems. Fifty percent of captive elephants will suffer from foot problems at some point in their lifetime. The elephant foot is uniquely designed to support the largest land mammal, who range from 7,920-pound Asian females to 13,200-pound African males. Foot problems in captive populations are generally thought to be effects of lack of exercise, standing for extended periods on hard surfaces, and contamination from unsanitary enclosures (Csuti, Sargent, & Bechert, 2001). Neglect and lack of wear of elephant feet can lead to a number of foot lesions. Fourteen types of lesions were documented by Sarma, Thomas, Gogoi, Sarma, & Sarma (2012) in a study of captive Asian elephants in India, with the top three being overgrown nails, overgrown cuticles, split nails, cracked soles, and pitted soles. Multiple strands of bacteria and fungi were found in the foot lesions. Although a similar study is not available for captive elephants in the U.S., it is still clear that foot problems can be a major welfare issue if left unaddressed.

Encouraging the elephants in the sanctuary to roam, as discussed above, can help to decrease the risk of foot problems. The elephants would be free to move about at all times, never enclosed indoors, and no concrete or other hard substrates will be present on any part of the property. Indoor enclosures and highly frequented areas will be cleaned of feces daily (as suggested by AZA Standards, 2011) or twice daily, if needed. At least one member of the staff should be highly trained in elephant foot care. AZA Standard (2011) requires AZA institutions to clean and inspect elephants’ feet daily. As will be discussed later, elephants will never be forced to participate in human contact unless veterinary care is expressly needed. The hope in this case is that steps taken to provide adequate exercise and assure clean, soft surfaces for walking and standing will prevent most foot problems from occurring. Staff should attempt to assess the feet of each elephant by sight alone and by observing the elephants’ behaviors.

It is well documented that captive elephant populations have lower rates of reproductive success than their wild counterparts. One study, which included almost 140 female elephants residing in AZA institutions, found that over one-third of the participants did not have normal ovarian cycles (Carlstead, et al., 2013). Premature cell aging, occurrences of ovarian cysts, male infertility, and low libido further contribute to low conception rates (Clubb, Rowcliffe, Lee, Mar, Moss, & Mason, 2009). Both infant mortality rates and first year mortalities are approximately 40 percent. These rates are most likely related to health problems associated with obesity and infant neglect and infanticide due to maternal stress. Clubb, et al. (2009) reported that, due to these factors, North American captive elephant populations are not self-sustaining.

The purpose of the proposed sanctuaries is to give the currently captive elephants in the U.S. a place to retire comfortably. No purposeful breeding will occur and bulls and cows will be kept in separate areas of the sanctuary to prevent breeding. Fertility testing including, but not limited to, blood tests and transrectal ultrasound are unnecessary and invasive and will not be performed. Therefore, reproductive status and success will not used to assess welfare in sanctuary elephants.

Finally, morbidity in comparison to the rates seen in wild counterparts is a significant measure of animal welfare. Three research articles related to morbidity were reviewed, and the information presented was sometimes contradictory. Veasey (2006) reported the data of a 2003 study by Clubb and Mason that claimed captive elephant life expectancy is 21 years for Asian elephants and 18 years for African elephants. Veasey then referred to a report by Wiese and Willis (2004) that disputed these claims. Wiese and Willis (2004) revealed that Clubb and Mason had used only data from deceased captive elephants, which greatly skewed the numbers. Incorporating the data of captive elephants still living, Wiese and Willis (2004) calculated captive average life expectancy to be 44.8 years for Asian elephants and 33.0 years for African elephants in North America. In 2008, Clubb, Rowcliffe, Lee, Mar, Moss, & Mason, stated that zoo-born African elephant median lifespans are 16.9 years and zoo-born Asian elephants median lifespans are 18.9 years, compared to 56 years and 41.7 years in respective wild counterparts. They also found that zoo-born elephants had lower survivorship rates than wild-born conspecifics. Poor survivorship, as with high infant mortality rates, are thought to be caused by stress and obesity (Clubb, et al., 2008).

The conflicting data about captive elephant mortality makes it difficult to use it as a welfare measure. As average lifespan and longevity are often used in the press to describe welfare (Wiese & Willis, 2004), it is likely that sanctuaries will be assessed in this way. As the sanctuary is dedicated to providing ideal animal welfare, veterinary care will be used as needed, but perhaps to a lesser degree than seen in other captive habitats. This is because of the desire to keep stress levels low and allow for autonomy in sanctuary elephants. When invasive veterinary care or assistance in dignified death might be needed, a board of several staff members will meet to make an ethical decision about what is best for the overall welfare and quality of life of the elephant.

II. Natural Living and Affective States

a. Kinship groups. Elephants are highly social animals. In the wild, the females and

calves live in a hierarchical society, led by the matriarch, one of the oldest females in the group. Infants are suckled for five years. Females stay with the herd for life and males leave the group when they are sexually mature between the ages of twelve and fifteen, to seek mates (Irie & Hasegawa, 2009). A normal herd is made up of nine to eleven females and calves, but in some cases herds can be as large as forty members. At times, family groups congregate to form clans of up to 100 (Veasey, 2006). Males may be solitary or travel in groups of two to four (Irie & Hasegawa).

Social ties are indispensable to elephants. They are able to discriminate other individuals by using visual, vocal, and tactile clues. It is thought that vocalization is key in these bonds (Irie & Hasegawa, 2006). In nature, group sizes vary, making it hard to set a standard for minimum group size. According to Hutchins (2006), AZA standards require that females be housed in groups of at least three. However, under the heading of “Group Size”,the current AZA Standards (2011) state: “More research is needed to develop guidelines for this section.” Critics argue for groups with greater than five members (Hutchins, 2006). Ideally, these groups would be made up of related members, but this is highly improbably in North American elephants (Veasey, 2006). Hutchins (2006) writes, “Group compatibility may be a more important factor than group size per se. An elephant maintained in a smaller, but compatible group may, in fact, be better off than one in a larger, incompatible group.”

In zoos around the world, 48% of elephants are living in groups of fewer than five, and 60% of elephants are in groups of less than four. Social interaction between captive elephants is the main form of enrichment in their lives and is required to develop normal behavior patterns. Elephants are known to form strong friendships with specific conspecifics. When zoos move elephants around, it causes stress to both the elephant who is moved and the members of her new group, but when the new group is a good fit, the stress is usually not severe (Rees, 2009).

It will take time to form appropriate groups in the sanctuary and there may be trial and error involved. Upon moving to the sanctuary, elephants will not be moved geographically again, but a need may arise for partitions between different groups. Male elephants may need to be kept separate to prevent both conception and stress to female elephants, as it is abnormal to have a mature male present year-round in the wild. Elephants that arrive together from a zoo will not be separated and existing and new friendship bonds will be nurtured and protected by sanctuary staff.

b. Day and Night Activity. In the wild, non-foraging alert hours of an elephants day are used for social interactions, such as play, and behaviors related to self-maintenance, such as bathing or dusting. They engage in these behaviors throughout a 24-hour period. In zoos, elephants are often enclosed indoors at night and sometimes during the day depending on regional climate, enclosure design, and keeper practices. This can hinder their ability to engage in natural social and nonsocial behaviors throughout the day (Horback, Miller, Andrews, & Kuczaj, 2014).

In the sanctuary setting, elephants will be free to come and go from any indoor enclosures at all times of day. In this way, they can carry out social and nonsocial behaviors when and where they choose to do so. The only cases in which an elephant is enclosed indoors would be \related to health problems that require rest for the elephant and intense monitoring by staff.

By forming and maintaining appropriate kinship groups and allowing for round-the-clock activities, the sanctuary will meet Principle 4 proposed by Carlstead, et al. (2013): Species-appropriate social behaviors. These practices will also contribute to the principle 7: Avoidance of negative emotions and experience of positive emotions.

III. Affective States

Creating positive welfare in relation to affective states requires some further aspects that fall outside the criteria of natural living. There are several facets of captive elephant life that are directly related to their captive status and the involvement of humans in their lives.

a. Visitors. A zoo is defined as a “parklike [sic] area in which live animals are kept in cages or large enclosures for public exhibition” (zoo, n.d.) The AZA claims that zoos offer “society the opportunity to develop unparalleled personal connections with the animals in their care (Conservation, 2014).” AZA-accredited zoos attract over 175 million visitors annually (Visitor Demographics, 2014) meaning that elephant kept in zoos are the subjects of human viewers every day.

Although elephants in particular have not been studied, Davey (2007) reviewed thirty papers detailing the effects of visitors on the welfare of a number of species. While none of the studies showed that visitors had positive effects on the animals, fourteen of the studies discovered that visitors had stressful or negative effects. Of these fourteen studies, thirteen involved primates, who, like elephants, are known to be highly intelligent (Davey, 2007). Veasey (2006) writes that high levels of intelligence and self-awareness, which elephants have, can also make the animal more susceptible to suffering and stress. Although a zoo may do well at reducing the most obviously stressful visitor behaviors such as shouting and throwing things, the studies reviewed by Davey (2007) showed that “the mere presence and typical activities of visitors at exhibits [are associated] behavioral and physiological changes in captive animals.” Though the review didn’t include studies on elephants, it is likely they too experience a decrease in welfare related to zoo visitors.

Bradshaw, Smuts, and Durham (2010) write that the dominant society of today assumes a “right to sight” when it comes to nonhuman animals. This notion has very negative connotations.


“Presuming the right to visual possession comprises the first step in the process of objectification and hence any fate that objectification permits, including physical possession and death. Denial of subjectivity is the denial of the right to life itself. Animals held captive epitomize this process (Bradshaw, et al., 2010).”


They hold that this human mindset is disruptive and harmful for captive animals, as well as wildlife that are subjected to viewing by ecotourists. The sanctuary setting should allow elephants to be relatively free from human viewing. The public will not have access to the grounds and interaction with staff should be elephant-directed. Except for cases where veterinary care is imperative, the elephants should be free to contact or not contact human staff as they choose. The size of the sanctuary should allow for areas where elephants can be undisturbed and out-of-sight of humans and human structures.

b. Trauma. Many, and perhaps all, zoo elephants have experienced significant trauma in their lives. Possible traumatic events include capture, premature removal from mother, and mistreatment by keepers. Animals, like humans, who experience trauma early in life can experience problems with psychological development and display impaired adult behaviors (Shannon, Slotow, Durant, Syialel, Pool, Moss, & McComb, 2013). Captivity itself, which involves the inability to escape from unpleasant events or circumstances, causes trauma (Bradshaw, 2009, 150). Traumatized elephants exhibit strikingly similar behaviors to traumatized humans, and in several cases have met the criteria laid out for humans in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Bradshaw, 2009, 81-86, 95-114).

As in humans, recovering from trauma and PTSD requires the elephant to pass through three phases: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection (Bradshaw, 2009, 161). To assist with the first phase of safety, sanctuaries should provide a safe place and allow the restoration of a sense of control over mind and body in the elephants. This is why recommendations above often give elephants the freedom to make choices.

As described by Zuckerman (2013, unpublished):

“When the elephants at the sanctuary feel safe and in control, they can begin the process of remembrance and mourning (Bradshaw, 2009). They each do this in their own way, whether it be with a group, one special friend, or alone. Throughout the process, the elephants learn to reconnect with themselves and others in a meaningful way. The process is different for each elephant…and they reach the final phase of reconnection in their own way.”

A full discussion of PTSD in is not within the scope of this paper and interested readers should refer to Gay Bradshaw’s book Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity (2009) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Elephants by Cari Zuckerman (2013, unpublished, available upon request).

c. Free will. Even in cases where an elephant does not appear to be suffering from past traumatic experiences, it is important to allow them to practice free will in their daily activities and interactions. According to Veasey (2006), “Animals denied choice and control over their surroundings are likely to suffer a reduction in welfare…” Control over mind and body is something that is certainly lacking in many zoo settings. Allowing elephants to have free will is perhaps the most imperative principle for sanctuaries to uphold.

Allowing free will, prohibiting public viewing, and providing necessary therapeutic assistance to elephants suffering from past traumas will serve to meet the remaining principles of Carlstead, et al.’s (2013) framework. These are principle 6: Good human-elephant relationships, and principle 7: Avoidance of negative emotions and experience of positive emotions.


While this paper covers some of the dominant welfare issues that elephants face in captivity, it is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the subject. Some of the basic cornerstones of creating an elephant sanctuary are laid out above but a thorough set of guidelines would need to be established for such an institution. The AZA Standards for Elephant Care and Management could serve as a template to create those guidelines, which would be flexible and in constant revision as new studies contribute to what is known about elephant welfare, or certain guidelines prove to be inadequate for the specific population at the sanctuary.

A dedicated staff would be essential to creating and maintaining the utmost welfare for the elephants in the sanctuary’s care. Whether or not the elephants choose to interact with them, staff will be tasked with becoming intimately familiar with each individual elephant’s temperament, behaviors, preferences, and needs. In this way, problems that arise will be quickly identified and appropriate action can be taken.

Above all, the sanctuary should be committed to the welfare of each individual elephant. Every elephant has a history and an identity, and this should be respected. Personal identities, friendships, and the elephants’ senses of security and autonomy should be carefully protected and nurtured every day.


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