Former Ringling Elephants to Escape from Depressing Zoo FacilityPosted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on August 9, 2013
Is anything cuter than a baby elephant? While the cute factor reels in zoo visitors, it papers over the dark side of keeping elephants in inadequate zoos. But a recent decision to transfer long-suffering elephants Sophie and Babe away from unbearable zoo conditions—solely on the basis of protecting their health and welfare–provides a glimmer of hope.
Captivity has caused a lifetime of suffering to elephants like Sophie and Babe—currently housed at the Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, Illinois. Like other forms of captive animal exhibition, zoos bring in massive profits at the expense of animal welfare. That is why this June the Animal Legal Defense Fund sent a formal letter to the director of Niabi Zoo and its municipal owner, the Forest Preserve Commission, urging the immediate removal of the zoo’s elephants to a safe sanctuary—and warning legal action would be taken if necessary to protect the elephants. And in July, veterinary advice, public pressure, and letters such as the one sent by Animal Legal Defense Fund helped Niabi Zoo ownership and management make the right call to transfer Sophie and Babe, guaranteeing an improvement to the elephants’ welfare.
Sophie and Babe were both kidnapped from the wild as children and taken away from their mothers. Before they arrived at Niabi Zoo, they were enslaved for decades at Ringling Brothers Circus, where they were beaten into performing unnatural tricks for audiences, and chained so tightly they couldn’t move. In the wild, elephants live in social groups structured around mothers and travel as much as 30 miles per day with their families to find fresh vegetation and water to play and bathe in. These majestic giants need large, open spaces for their health and wellbeing. Zoos like Niabi, however, remove even these basic needs, denying elephants social connections, family ties, and space to roam, and they often forcing elephants to stand for hours on hard surfaces. As occurs at many other zoos, Niabi workers even apply cruel discipline using bullhooks and chains; a bullhook is a tool used to punish and control elephants, consisting of a long handle connected to a sharp steel hook, allowing “trainers” to poke, pull, and yank at sensitive areas of the elephant’s flesh.
The pain endured by Sophie and Babe has been well-documented by veterinarians, and everyone agrees Sophie is deteriorating rapidly. Another harsh winter for this Asian elephant could mean her doom. Elephant expert Dr. Alan Roocroft’s March 2013 report on the Niabi Zoo’s elephant exhibit raised serious concerns about Babe and Sophie’s welfare. The Roocroft report documented that they lack almost any enrichment and are often forced to stand for 24 hour periods during the winter in a dark, cold, windy enclosure—which has caused Sophie so much pain that she now has to sleep standing up. These outrageous conditions, which violate the Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act, led the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to refuse accreditation to the Niabi Zoo.
Cramped conditions in tiny enclosures lead to serious health problems for elephants like Sophie and Babe, particularly foot infections and arthritis. Other painful problems for these intelligent, sensitive animals include an extremely psychological distress and intense joint pain.
Thankfully, the Forest Preserve Commission has voted overwhelmingly to move Sophie and Babe to a less cruel location, still to be determined. Unfortunately, while the Forest Preserve Commissioner has admitted the facility is inadequate to house elephants, he has reportedly suggested replacing them with rhinos—large mammals who would also suffer terribly in the inadequate conditions of the exhibit.
Do wild animals deserve to suffer so immensely—ultimately to be put out to pasture when their health problems make them too expensive to house—just so zoos can exploit their appeal to visitors? It is time for our society to take a sharper look at the cruelty behind captive elephant trade. Sophie and Babe deserve immediate transfer to a reputable and appropriate sanctuary. After all their suffering, they have a chance at a better future—and ALDF aims to ensure that they get it.
— ALDF (@ALDF) August 10, 2013