The Age, June 19, 2006 Save elephants from zoos These big animals need to range over large areas and interact with other elephants, writes David Hancocks. Thirty years ago, at my desk one dreary morning, I listened to abuse from a mother demanding to know why I would deny her children the right to see an elephant. As the new director of the zoo in Seattle, Washington, one of my first recommendations had been to send our two elephants to a place with a warmer climate and more space. In addition to calls from irate mothers, my proposal generated hate mail from schools. Journalists asked how we could be a zoo if we didn't have an elephant. A politician suggested that if I raised the topic again I would be the one leaving town, not the elephants. The response today might be different. In recent years, zoos in Detroit, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, London and Bristol, recognising they cannot meet the complex social, behavioural, psychological and spatial needs of elephants, have closed their exhibits or are phasing them out. Other zoos, in Tucson, Anchorage, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and, sadly, Seattle, are being dragged kicking and screaming into a rapidly growing public debate across America about zoos and elephants. The concerns are fuelled by information emerging from years of field studies. One researcher, Cynthia Moss, aptly describes elephants as "intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful, and funny". We now know from Moss and others that elephants in the wild live in very stable, multi-generational families, never separated from each other except by death. Their social communication is astonishing: an elephant can distinguish the vocalisations of more than 100 elephants from at least 14 families. They are active for more than 16 hours a day, foraging over 10 kilometres while exercising their joints and ligaments, maintaining muscle tone, burning fat, ensuring good blood flow, and enjoying mental stimulation from covering such large areas. This bears little resemblance to the life that characterises captive conditions in even the best zoos. Typically, zoo elephants lead stoic lives marked by depression, foot rot, bone disease, obesity, and boredom. Zoo elephants die younger than their wild brethren, and most of them suffer ailments from a combination of inactivity, inappropriate diets, loneliness, inadequate housing, lack of space, and stress. A study by the RSPCA in England four years ago revealed so many concerns they recommended importation and breeding of zoo elephants should stop. Space is a critical issue, although that's denied by zoos. But determining the minimum space for zoo elephants is an inexact science. They love to explore, to exercise, to wander. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, home to many abused zoo elephants, provides more than 1000 rolling hectares. My view is that eight hectares could be an acceptable minimum, if properly designed. Should that seem barely tolerable, consider that the new $15 million exhibit at Taronga provides just one fifth of a hectare. Melbourne Zoo's new exhibit, of similar cost, provides less than half a hectare. In addition to their construction costs, Melbourne and Taronga have also invested considerable funds to acquire elephants for their new exhibits. Last year they received government permits to import eight elephants from Thailand. They assert it will help save the species from extinction. This claim echoes a chorus sung by many zoos. They say baby zoo elephants are essential, because wild elephants are disappearing. But no zoo elephant babies will ever be reintroduced to the wild. Nor will they ever enjoy a life remotely like the quality and complexity they could enjoy in the wild. No credible authority on elephant conservation supports the idea that zoo breeding is necessary. Only zoos seem to think this is a good and useful action. Is it possible that their eagerness for baby elephants might be because an elephant birth guarantees huge increases in zoo attendance? The track record for successful breeding, however, is not good. No Australian zoo has ever bred an elephant. The approximately 130 Asian elephants in American zoos have produced 12 offspring since 2000. Seven of those were born dead or died within days of birth. I was involved with planning the Melbourne Zoo elephant exhibit. My first approach had been to persuade the zoo not to have elephants. I lost that argument, but there was agreement that the litany of health problems afflicting Melbourne's two elephants should not be repeated. I remember board member and veterinarian Andrew Vizard stating that the zoo should accept responsibility to make the remaining years of the resident two elephants as comfortable as possible, but that there should be no attempts to breed elephants at Melbourne Zoo; the problems of captivity should not be perpetuated. Concerned Thai nationals have temporarily prevented the shipment of the elephants destined for Australia. There is now a question whether the shipment will take place at all. It will be a wonderfully courageous and noble decision if the zoos decide not to pursue the importation. In any case, it is a question that deserves careful community deliberation. Guy Cooper, CEO of Taronga Zoo, claims that his new exhibit is "a Four Seasons Hotel for elephants". Do we really have the right to take animals as sociable, intelligent, vigorous, perceptive, communicative, and complex as elephants, and give them the equivalent of spending the rest of their lives with four other people in a hotel room? Couldn't the debate be taken to higher level than this simplistic spin? David Hancocks is a former director of Werribee Open Range Zoo and director of strategic planning for Zoos Victoria, and a former director of Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle.