Elephants in Captivity: Demanding an End to Cruel Confinement

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF Executive Director on March 15, 2016

Legally Brief

Today, an Asian elephant named Lucky shuffles and sways in a zoo in San Antonio, Texas, where she has spent 53 long years. Since the death of her companion in 2013, Lucky has lived entirely alone in captivity, deprived of the reassuring touch of other elephants so fundamental to her wellbeing. While the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) requires that a female Asian elephant live with at least two Asian elephant companions, the zoo apparently plans to keep Lucky in forced solitude the rest of her life.

Appalled by this cruel confinement, in December 2015, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit against the San Antonio Zoo for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA), alleging that the conditions of Lucky’s captivity have caused her psychological torment and physical injury. In late January, Judge Xavier Rodriguez of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a ruling that will allow ALDF’s ESA lawsuit on behalf of Lucky to proceed, refuting the Zoo’s untenable argument that captive wildlife are not protected by the ESA.

Human beings have long celebrated the exceptional qualities of elephants—their capacity for self-awareness, empathy, and grief, their ability to communicate across vast distances, and their strong and enduring familial bonds. But it wasn’t until more recently that society began to ask important questions—questions about the effects of captivity on animals that roam up to fifty miles a day in the wild, about what goes on behind the scenes when elephants aren’t performing tricks for our amusement—and the answers, invariably involving horrific suffering, proved incompatible with our values.

As circuses and zoos have been confronted with the growing public and legal opposition to elephant captivity, the practice of exploiting these emotionally complex creatures for profit and entertainment has begun edging closer to extinction. One of the most notorious elephant profiteers, Ringling Brothers, recently announced an accelerated timeline for phasing out elephants from its shows. Originally slated for 2018, the circus recently announced its intent to phase out the elephant act in May 2016.  Additionally, since 1998, 25 American zoos have either closed or announced plans to close their elephant exhibits, citing an inability to provide them with adequate care. Indeed, a study by the Seattle Times found that of the 390 elephants that died at accredited U.S. zoos in the past 50 years, the majority did so from injury or disease directly related to the conditions of their confinement.

Relief for Lucky cannot come soon enough. Like so many of her captive peers, Lucky has an abnormal gait and probable arthritis. Her best friend, Ginny, was euthanized by the Zoo in 2004 due to severe arthritis and foot infections, both common in captive elephants due to standing on hard, unnatural surfaces all day without adequate room to roam.

Fortunately, we have reason to be optimistic about Lucky’s chances in the ESA case, thanks to ALDF’s successful case against Cricket Hollow Zoo in Iowa. In early February, Judge Jon Stuart Scoles of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa issued an order agreeing with ALDF’s argument that the owners of an Iowa roadside zoo had violated the ESA by providing substandard care for their four tigers and three lemurs.

ALDF is proud to have contributed to the evolution of both the law and society’s treatment of captive elephants, and look forward to continuing to do so as advocates for Lucky—and, by extension, for every animal so cruelly confined, including:

  • Lolita, a captive orca held in the smallest orca tank in North America at the Miami Seaquarium. In July 2015, ALDF and a coalition of partners brought a lawsuit against Seaquarium citing the conditions of her captivity as a violation of the ESA.
  • Candy, the country’s loneliest chimpanzee who, like Lucky, has spent more than fifty years in captivity, forty of them in solitary confinement. In November 2015, ALDF filed suit against the Dixie Landin’ amusement park for isolating and neglecting Candy in violation of the ESA.
  • Ricky, a female black bear held for 16 years in an undersized chain-link and concrete cage at a Pennsylvania roadside attraction, on whose behalf ALDF filed suit in December 2014. Two months later, the owner agreed to a settlement wherein Ricky would be released to live out her days in a sanctuary filled with rolling grassland in Colorado.
  • Ben, a bear held at a North Carolina roadside attraction, on whose behalf ALDF filed a lawsuit in April 2012 against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), challenging its decision to renew the owners’ federal Animal Welfare Act license. The lawsuit resulted in a victory four months later when a Cumberland County District Court injunction ordered Ben released to a California sanctuary.

Elephant abusers, like most owners of captive wildlife, won’t do the right thing until the wrong thing stops being profitable. People can do their part by not patronizing those circuses and zoos that keep elephants in cruel confinement, and by supporting laws that regulate and restrict elephant captivity. When public awareness, legislative advocacy, and cutting edge litigation ultimately combine to make elephant captivity cost prohibitive, circuses and zoos will be quick to send the elephants to sanctuaries, where they may enjoy the natural habitats and lasting friendships so vital to their survival.


15 thoughts on “Elephants in Captivity: Demanding an End to Cruel Confinement

  1. Kirsti Arndt says:

    All the captive elephants should be sent to sanctuary.

  2. Karen Dawn says:

    Lovely article. And I am so happy to learn that ALDF is getting involved in Lolita’s case. It would be so beautiful to see her have some happiness, some semblance of freedom, before she dies.

  3. Maureen Ellen McGill says:

    It`s truly heart breaking to see these precious beings suffering year after year of their sad lives. Thank you for giving them a voice.

  4. Jane Bonkoski says:

    Any one involved with keeping elephants in captivity should be banished permanently from earth. These people? cannot be rehabilitated to change their thinking. Personally, I would like to see these people? put into a cruel confinement for life–just my opinion.

  5. DIANE KASTEL says:

    Elephant abusers, like most owners of captive wildlife, won’t do the right thing until the wrong thing stops being profitable. People can do their part by not patronizing those circuses and zoos that keep elephants in cruel confinement, and by supporting laws that regulate and restrict elephant captivity. When public awareness, legislative advocacy, and cutting edge litigation ultimately combine to make elephant captivity cost prohibitive, circuses and zoos will be quick to send the elephants to sanctuaries, where they may enjoy the natural habitats and lasting friendships so vital to their survival.

  6. DIANE KASTEL says:

    As circuses and zoos have been confronted with the growing public and legal opposition to elephant captivity, the practice of exploiting these emotionally complex creatures for profit and entertainment has begun edging closer to extinction. One of the most notorious elephant profiteers, Ringling Brothers, recently announced an accelerated timeline for phasing out elephants from its shows. Originally slated for 2018, the circus recently announced its intent to phase out the elephant act in May 2016. Additionally, since 1998, 25 American zoos have either closed or announced plans to close their elephant exhibits, citing an inability to provide them with adequate care. Indeed, a study by the Seattle Times found that of the 390 elephants that died at accredited U.S. zoos in the past 50 years, the majority did so from injury or disease directly related to the conditions of their confinement.

    Relief for Lucky cannot come soon enough. Like so many of her captive peers, Lucky has an abnormal gait and probable arthritis. Her best friend, Ginny, was euthanized by the Zoo in 2004 due to severe arthritis and foot infections, both common in captive elephants due to standing on hard, unnatural surfaces all day without adequate room to roam.

    Fortunately, we have reason to be optimistic about Lucky’s chances in the ESA case, thanks to ALDF’s successful case against Cricket Hollow Zoo in Iowa. In early February, Judge Jon Stuart Scoles of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa issued an order agreeing with ALDF’s argument that the owners of an Iowa roadside zoo had violated the ESA by providing substandard care for their four tigers and three lemurs.

    ALDF is proud to have contributed to the evolution of both the law and society’s treatment of captive elephants, and look forward to continuing to do so as advocates for Lucky—and, by extension, for every animal so cruelly confined,

  7. DIANE KASTEL says:

    As circuses and zoos have been confronted with the growing public and legal opposition to elephant captivity, the practice of exploiting these emotionally complex creatures for profit and entertainment has begun edging closer to extinction. One of the most notorious elephant profiteers, Ringling Brothers, recently announced an accelerated timeline for phasing out elephants from its shows. Originally slated for 2018, the circus recently announced its intent to phase out the elephant act in May 2016. Additionally, since 1998, 25 American zoos have either closed or announced plans to close their elephant exhibits, citing an inability to provide them with adequate care. Indeed, a study by the Seattle Times found that of the 390 elephants that died at accredited U.S. zoos in the past 50 years, the majority did so from injury or disease directly related to the conditions of their confinement.

    Relief for Lucky cannot come soon enough. Like so many of her captive peers, Lucky has an abnormal gait and probable arthritis. Her best friend, Ginny, was euthanized by the Zoo in 2004 due to severe arthritis and foot infections, both common in captive elephants due to standing on hard, unnatural surfaces all day without adequate room to roam.

  8. Marie Madden says:

    Thank you for all your good works towards helping animals. I am very concerned about Nosey the elephant who resides in Florida. Her selfish owner continues to earn his money from elephant rides from this poor arthritic elephant. USDA ignores this situation and refuses to order a comprehensive vet exam to determine the seriousness of her condition. She belongs in a sanctuary. I have talked to USDA personally several times and my pleas have fell on deaf ears. Can you help? Thank you.

  9. Ellen Samson says:

    I think that your work is very important to stop the cruel imprisonment of these unfortunate and very sad elephants.

  10. katrien says:

    stop the cruel imprisonment of the poor elephants. How would you like it to live in captivity?

  11. Valerie barcom says:

    I feel it is a horrible injustice that these wonderful majestic creatures remain in captivity and suffer at the hands of “humans” that are obviously more concerned about lining their wallets than giving these animals what they deserve. Freedom. Freedom to roam and move about with no concern about consequences. No longer having to be obedient, instead choosing what they please in their remaining years. Please make this inhumane treatment stop and punish those that continue this horrible and cruel confinement of such a wonderful creature. THEY DO NOT DESERVE THIS.

  12. I love the Animals!!

  13. Carolyn Nesbit says:

    It’s long past time to have Wild Animals performing in these horrible places, and having to subdue such intolerable cruelty. This has to STOP as soon as possible, with the animals given Sanctuary for the rest of their lives. All animal performances should be banned globally and any found flouting this to be fined, jailed and closed down for good!

  14. Edie Chiarappa says:

    All animals are innocent creatures and should never be used for entertainment. Give them Sanctuary now for the rest of their sweet little lives.

  15. Rosemary Smith says:

    So much concern for animals. I “had” a major disability. To me much of the services for people with disabilities just makes it look like we are doing such a great job. When in reality, much of services for people with disabilities is only meant to tow the line and keep the agency to look good.

    “Keep up animal rights activism”