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The West

Of the man-created Diaspora of Asian elephants to the West, Roocroft and Zoll (1994) state, “It is ironic, perhaps, that the elephant has been domesticated for some 5500 years and yet this animal remains a complex and awkward animal to keep in zoos.” Anybody monitoring the media and public opinion in the US recently might think that the elephants had through ESP launched a tightly co-ordinated mutiny. One 1994 newspaper headline screamed: “Elephants are mad and they’re not going to take it anymore!” A public relations officer for a zoo (Guerrero, 1996) writes, “Ask someone you meet on the street what they know about elephants and they will probably include how elephants are currently rebelling against the abuses they receive in captivity.” A journalist (Sahagun, 1994) quotes a zoo visitor severely injured when an elephant did “a headstand on his chest”; the victim held no grudge at all and said, “Elephants are intelligent animals and, knowing they are not in their natural environment, don’t want to be there [in a zoo or circus]. It must be a private hell for them.”

The training and care of elephants has become one of the public relations hot seats of endangered species management in the West for three key reasons. (‘The West’ henceforth is a catch-all term for ‘all places outside of Asia’.) First, for obscure but incontestable reasons, elephants are held in great affection by much of the public the world over. Second, the elephant’s intelligence places the treatment accorded it in the same delicate moral sphere as the primates and cetaceans. Third, beyond the elephant’s size, the extreme danger posed by many elephants makes the species highly visible to the public. In terms of both ethics and emotions, the keeping of elephants has become an explosive issue in North America.

From an Asian perspective, the supreme irony in trying to summarize the management conditions of approximately 1,000 Asian elephants in the West is that they have stimulated a management literature ten or even a hundred times larger than the writings about their 16,000 conspecifics in Asia. (Artificial insemination research alone has easily generated more printed words than all management aspects combined in Asia.) Drawing solely from existing sources, a full-sized book could be written about elephants in the West for most of the core subjects covered in this book. The following gloss aims to see the West through Asian eyes and to pay special attention to the interrelationship - past, present, and future - of the Asian and Western populations of Elephas maximus.

Besides getting the bulk of the words, the elephants in the West also receive a vastly disproportionate share of the money and the veterinary care devoted to the species in domesticity world-wide. These are First World elephants.

Wild elephants

There are no longer any wild elephants in the New World or in Europe. The last species of the order Proboscidea to become extinct in North America was Mammut americanum or the American mastodon; the last to go in Europe was Mammuthus primigenius, or the woolly mammoth. (The genera Mammuthus and Elephas are in the same family, and some 19th century taxonomists classified Mammuthus as Elephas.) Both are generally have thought to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago. Many scientists would say that these recent extinctions resulted partly or even entirely from hunting by Palaeolithic man. It is ironic that ten millennia later Homo sapiens brought Elephas maximus from Asia.

Distribution of domesticated elephants

About one out of fifteen domesticated Asian elephants lives outside of Asia. Around 1991 there were 370 Asian elephants in North America (Tuttle, 1992a). In 1992, there were 497 Asian elephants in Europe (Kurt, 1994). Slightly over 100 Asian elephants were scattered over the rest of the world with many in Japan. The European and North American populations are the only sizeable groups outside of Asia, although unfortunately the reproductive potential of these animals is lower than even their falling numbers would suggest.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

The number of African elephants imported to the US increased greatly after the Asian elephant was placed in Appendix I of CITES in 1975 and grew particularly in the mid-1980s when there was a surplus of legal African calves, mostly survivors of culls in Zimbabwe. Some time around 1983 the number of African elephants in the US passed Asian elephants for the first time (Fraser, 1983). “The general consensus is that the number of Asians is falling while Africans are on the increase,” according to Tuttle (1992a), from whom much of Table 24 has been derived. (Japan is, of course, part of Asia, but as a fully developed country with no indigenous elephants, it clearly counts as part of ‘the West’.)

· See “Recruitment,” page 231.

Table 24: Asian elephants in captivity outside of Asia

Region Year

Asian elephants

African elephants





North America



Tuttle, 1992a






Kurt, 1994









Australia & NZ



Jayewardene, 1996









South America






All non-Asia

@ 950

@ 670

The sex ratio of a 1995 sample of 278 Asian elephants in 69 facilities in the US and Canada showed 42 males and 236 females (Rick Parsons, Pers. comm.). Such a skewed sex ratio of males to females, 0.15:1, reflects both pre-CITES buying patterns, particularly a preference for females, and also a high mortality rate for males in the past; until recently bulls were often ‘put down’ as uncontrollable. (Between 1915 and 1983, according to Fraser [1983], some 51% of Asian elephants died by the age of twenty, a disproportionate share undoubtedly being males shot for being ‘aggressive’.) In Parsons’s sample, of the 139 animals between 15 and 30 years, there were only 18 males but 121 females; of the 48 elephants under 15 years, however, 22 were males and 26 were females, a nearly 1:1 ratio and a welcome swing from the past - but a potentially troublesome swing because of the grave difficulties the West has in keeping males.

Legal status

The US ratified CITES in 1974 and the Asian elephant was placed in Appendix I of CITES in 1975. In the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants the Asian elephant is classified as endangered; all elephants imported must satisfy the USFWS’s stringent regulations, stricter even than CITES itself. Further, depending on the provenance of their elephant and the nature of their permit, most keepers must operate under the guidelines and inspections of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which controls interstate commerce. At a federal level, keepers must also abide by the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. Beyond federal law, the keeping of elephants is also affected by state law and even municipal law. Because of danger to humans, many US cities have banned exotic animals, including elephants (Allen, 1995).

Many of the most competent and conscientious keepers feel that excessive restrictions make their work more difficult, particularly when there remain many sub-standard owners difficult to police because there are few meaningful penalties short of confiscation, which is not feasible except in cases of rampant abuse.

All Western European countries have ratified and, for the most part, vigorously enforced CITES. Elephant-keeping law and public opinion is much harder to monitor in Europe because of a welter of national laws and languages, but the European Community Commission evidently administers both EC and CITES regulations.

The popular media, both newspapers and television, have become a powerful legal pressure group, a catalyst provoking action. Journalists are often right but sometimes misinformed - and always overly simplistic. Guerrero (1996) writes, “Elephants have been a target of media attention for several years now. Anyone housing these animals without good media liaisons and public education are potential targets.” Anyone housing elephants targetted by the media is likely to soon be a target for legal authorities spurred on by public opinion.


In the US there is no compulsory nation-wide central registry, although nearly every elephant will be in a database run by one or more of the institutions discussed above or below.

Institutions involved

In 1983 there were some 70 North American zoos which kept elephants (Fraser, 1983). Conservation programs are most often found at zoos, but one circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, has recently built a US$5 million dollar facility for 28 elephants (Houck, 1996) which is “dedicated to the conservation, breeding and study of the Asian elephant.”

The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA, or AZA) sponsors two animal management programs, studbooks and Species Survival Plans (SSP). Each studbook is managed by a keeper who records births, deaths, and transfers with an aim to create accurate information essential to making recommendations about breeding (Olson, 1994).

SSPs, which began in 1981, help institutions and individuals to cooperate voluntarily in reducing the loss of genetic variability in captive populations of, in 1992, some 72 species. According to Tuttle (1992b), they are “a support mechanism should a species fail in the wild.” Beyond helping to manage animals in captivity, Olson (1994) says that SSP’s strategies “are increasing in scope to include habitat preservation, education, aid to foreign zoos, field and laboratory research.” The Asian Elephant SSP was founded in 1985 and has 50 participating institutions holding 229 elephants between them. In a non-binding agreement called a Memorandum of Participation, participating zoos voluntarily submit themselves to abiding by AZA and SSP guidelines. Tuttle (1992b) says, “Studies are being conducted on genetic variability, on mitochondrial DNA variation, DNA finger printing, musth, role of Vitamin E in reproduction, semenology and on necropsy protocol.”

The Elephant Managers Association (EMA) in North America is comprised mainly of zoo personnel and related professionals but also a healthy number of members from the more progressive circuses, safari parks, private owners, etc. The EMA has a code of professional ethics (and a committee to investigate infractions), a hefty newsletter, and conducts regular workshops.

The International Species Inventory System (ISIS) maintains a world-wide registry of all elephants kept by member institutions. ISIS is basically a computerized inventory which keeps but little biodata.

Besides such groups of professional keepers, over the past 10 or 15 years many animal welfare or animal rights organizations have cast their eyes on elephant keeping, previously a closed world of little interest to outsiders and the public. The more activist of these NGOs have frequently had powerful impact on elephant owners, particularly locally, by agitating for legal action to correct the abuse of elephants, whether real or perceived. Allen (1995), a researcher for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) writes, “Just as we would speak out against an incident of child abuse or racial injustice, we are morally and ethically obligated to stand up for elephants in captivity.” Characterising the mood of what traditional Western keepers would consider the lunatic fringe, Sahagun (1994), a journalist, writes, “Some animal-welfare activists say they believe the nation’s aging population of elephants, who reproduce only rarely in captivity, are actively rebelling against a life of torment at the hands of their taskmasters.”

Veterinary care and health

Nearly all the elephants in the West get superb veterinary care nearly as sophisticated as the techniques used in human medicine: dentistry (including tusks), surgery, drug therapy, ultrasonography, etc. In any case, Asian elephants in foreign zoos face but few of the parasites and endemic diseases of their native environment. A few unique medical problems do arise from Western keeping conditions, such as complications from obesity, osteopathic complaints related to weather and concrete floors, and most especially foot and nail problems.

Physically, the animals in Europe, North America, and most of the West are on average extraordinarily healthy, although some very poor treatment is accorded in zoos and circuses in South America, Mexico, etc. As a result of excellent food in great supply, animals of all ages are on average much taller and heavier than their counterparts in Asia, with calves showing astonishing growth rates. Bulls are often so overfed and so underworked that some have been known to stay in musth for over a year. Food in the West is often used almost like a tranquillizer, with the keepers thinking, correctly, that an elephant contentedly feeding is less likely to create trouble. (In Asia, most mahouts will intentionally keep their elephant always just a bit hungry; elephants with food on their minds are usually more willing to acquiesce to the mahout, the ultimate controller of food.)

To Asian eyes, many zoo elephants in the West are so fat and so large for their ages as to be physically grotesque. (In Asia the instinct of an owner or elephant manager on seeing a fat adult elephant is to try to burn off those calories doing paying work - to turn the fat into money.) To anybody who has seen many wild elephants in Asia, the existence of these Western giants suggests that in nature, even where food is bountiful, there must be environmental or behavioral factors which ultimately limit growth.

The Asian elephants outside of Asia are the world’s most pampered elephants but also, some would say, the most tortured. Psychologically, keeping elephants in isolation or very small numbers has long brought social ineptitude and ensuing problems: an inability to breed, mothers rejecting calves, etc. There is clearly a movement amongst zoos away from keeping elephants in isolation. Though on the basis of an incomplete sample, Galloway (1995) says that facilities which keep only one single elephant dropped from 26% in 1976 to only 9% in 1995.

Social isolation and environmental deprivation invariably produce stereotypic behavior such as swaying, head bobbing, endless pacing, etc. Leach (1995) stresses the need for behavioral enrichment to counter “inappropriate environments” which produce low reproductive rates, elevated levels of stress hormones, diminished or distorted behavior repertoires, and even neurological diminishment; she writes that, “The important thing for animal managers to know is that formation and preservation of dendrites [a part of neurons] depends on environmental stimulation.”


Until recently the West was long accustomed to acquiring nearly all of its elephants by buying calves from Asian countries. Speaking of pre-CITES days, one American trainer, Scot Riddle, is quoted (Wilson, 1996) as saying, “Elephants, unfortunately, have always been disposable animals. When ole Bessie got bad, she was sold or euthanized. Then you called the animal dealer and got a little baby.”


Of the 497 Asian elephants in European zoos and circuses at the end of 1992, 463 had been imported from Asia while only 34 were captive born (Kurt, 1994); even as late as 1989, some 22 elephants reached an animal dealer in Holland from Myanmar (Beaumont, 1990). The vast majority of the US and Canadian population of about 370 elephants were imported from Asia, almost always as calves, supplemented by only about one captive-born calf annually. Of North America, Tuttle (1992a) says that “imports of the Asian elephant continued through most of the 1980s; however, by the end of the decade importations had been brought nearly to a halt.” The West had through CITES voluntarily cut itself off from a cheap and steady flow of recruits to be tapped as needed.

Of 74 elephants imported into the US which had their origins traced, according to Fraser (1983), most came from three countries: India (39%), Thailand (29%), and Sri Lanka (18%). Many of the apparently Thai elephants would have been elephants from Cambodia and Laos which only briefly transited Thailand to be loaded onto a ship in Bangkok.

Captive births

Europe experienced its first birth of an Asian elephant, a stillborn calf, in 1902 at the London Zoo. At the end of 1992, Europe’s 497 Asian elephants had a very low annual rate of reproduction of 0.7% and an astonishingly high mortality rate of neonates (new-borns) of 39.7% (Kurt, 1994). For contrast, according to Kurt, in Myanmar the reproduction rate of the MTE’s elephants in recent years has varied between 2.4% to 4.1%, and the new-born mortality rate has averaged about 7%. Europe’s low rate of reproduction is attributable to a very low number of bulls (particularly proven breeders), to relatively few cows of prime breeding age, and to difficulties in providing proximity of bulls to cows. The high neonate death rate probably stems mostly from inexperienced mothers, although diet could play a role. (The rate of new-born calves rejected by their mothers in zoos is very high world-wide.) Kurt asserts that given Europe’s current reproductive rate and assuming that no juveniles are imported, Europe’s non-breeding subpopulation is “doomed” in 25 years and the breeding subpopulation “doomed” in 30 years. Europe’s domesticated elephants, even if managed as an integrated population, would appear to have far less reproductive potential than North America’s elephants, despite Europe’s higher numbers.

North America has had a chequered history with captive breeding. The first Asian elephant reached the United States by ship in 1796, but the first recorded birth of an Asian elephant occurred in a circus only in 1880. (That calf was, as was not uncommon at the time, ultimately destroyed as uncontrollable when she was twenty-five years old.) Not a single calf was born in North America from 1918 until 1962, when the Washington Park Zoo produced the first of a phenomenal series of 25 calves through the year 1991, including the first second-generation calves to be born in North America. (The dark side of the success was that several calves died from birth defects apparently due to inbreeding.) The elephants of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus are said to constitute “the largest Asian elephant gene pool outside Southeast Asia,” with four adult bulls including a phenomenal breeder named Vance, the sire of 24 calves (Houck, 1996).

Under a resolution adopted by the CITES parties in North America, Asian elephants are counted as captive-born animals only when both parents were captive-held; there have been 81 captive-born elephants, of which 48 were still alive in 1995, and 7 second generation captive-borns, of which two were still alive (Rick Parsons, pers. comm.).

The present birth rate in North America is very low, and the few births are limited mostly to a few successful facilities. Factors which inhibit breeding are found with both bulls and cows. Out of 32 males in one sample of 229 elephants (Tuttle, 1992b), 21 were over the age of nine but only eight of those were proven breeders. Jacobson {1996} says that in the US there are very few proven bulls: potent, knowing what to do, and how to make cows cooperate. Even with good studs there remain difficulties with handling and acclimatising bulls and cows before mating. (One bull in the US is tolerant of six cows he knows but will attempt to kill any strange cow put in his enclosure.)

Two prime factors inhibit the successful breeding of cows: first, only a few cows are bred and, second, the average age of cows is rising. Amongst Tuttle’s large sample of 192 breeding-age cows, there had been only 32 births and these had all come from only 14 cows; further, 60% of the sample’s females were older than 20 years. Schmidt (1992), staff veterinarian at the Washington Park Zoo, says, “If you want to begin an elephant-breeding program, it helps if your elephants are young, healthy, and fertile.” This being so, a looming problem in North America, like Europe (though probably at an earlier stage), is that the median age of cows is creeping up, with ever more animals passing beyond prime breeding age.

In Asia the logical response to the low birth rate would be to screen all young bulls and to train the most tractable and promising to stud: give them chances for adolescent sex play, train them to be trucked, etc. Ownership is perhaps too splintered in the West to make specially chosen and trained studs viable.

Artificial insemination

The joker in the pack - the surprise in waiting for decades - is artificial insemination (AI), which has yet to produce a single calf. Twenty years of intensive AI research (preeminently at the Washington Park Zoo) has produced a wealth of highly useful peripheral knowledge, including good understandings of the elephant’s reproductive chemistry and most particularly the estrus cycle. One well-informed but uninvolved observer predicted to the author that AI will soon produce a calf. For practical conservation, however, the question is not whether AI ever achieves a single birth but rather whether AI ever becomes a standard procedure. The difficulties with AI to date could be interpreted to indicate that at best it will always be an exotic and rarely successful technique; on the other hand, the surgical castration of bulls was once thought impossible (many bulls died before the operation was perfected) but is today a fairly routine procedure. The future of AI is a moot question.

From an Asian perspective, the critical question is whether AI will ever be practical in the field. In terms of increasing births in Asia, the discovery of the true estrus cycle (and the subsequent ability to track it) has the potential to produce far more calves than does AI itself.


Prices in North America and Europe cover a much wider range than in any country in Asia. A desirable animal might go for an average of about US$40,000 to US$50,000; a safe performing animal might go for US$100,000 and an exceptional animal for even more. Some animals, on the other hand, are valueless or even a financial burden. (There are elephants that many zoos and circuses would happily pay not to own.) While costly, elephants are not exorbitantly expensive compared to Asia, with healthy and safe elephants selling for perhaps five or ten times more than their counterparts overseas. Relative to per capita human income, elephants are probably as cheap or even cheaper than in Asia.

The most valuable class is undoubtedly young females, with an intelligent calf fetching a very high price. Many bulls have little value because their temperament prevents them from performing. (Castration to some extent softens their behavior but leaves them doubly useless: unable to sire calves but still too dangerous to work.) Maintaining problem bulls, and even some cows, can today require a huge financial outlay, whereas in the old days such dangerous and ‘useless’ animals were usually taken behind the barn to receive a rifle slug in the brain.

The market

The vast amount of money needed to safely keep and display elephants limits ownership and keeps the market relatively inactive. Beyond a higher purchase price than in Asia, elephants in North America cost far more to keep, with a year’s expenses probably constituting a much higher portion of an elephant’s purchase price than in Asia. (Of course, opportunities for making money are often commensurately higher.)

From an Asian perspective, the amount of money spent keeping elephants in the West is phenomenal. (Keeping animals is North America is a big business; Americans in 1996 spent US$15 billion in the “pet products industry” - enough to buy all the domesticated elephants in Asia 120 times over.) Owners of show elephants must pay hefty insurance premiums; Sahagun (1994) says, “Liability insurance for an elephant runs about $25,000 a year - double the annual insurance for a 1994 Rolls-Royce Corniche in Los Angeles County.” The annual cost of keeping an elephant in a Western zoo probably averages at least US$60,000: one keeper’s salary and benefits, food, veterinary care, insurance, pro-rated share of physical facilities, etc.

A sum of US$60,000 would buy all of the veterinary medicines which the Myanma Timber Enterprise imports annually to treat over 3,000 elephants.


Employment is limited to display in zoos and performance in circuses. In 1979, there were still said to be about 265 elephants in circuses in the US. No useful physical work is regularly done by elephants, except for a few elephants giving rides. A similar future is likely for the more developed Asian countries, where in a few decades elephants will be found almost entirely in zoos and entertainment venues.


Some ‘government-owned’ elephants in Europe and North America belong to national zoos but most are owned by state or municipal zoos. Privately-owned elephants mostly belong to circuses or entertainment venues but a few are in the hands of private individuals.


Until fairly recently in North America and Europe most elephant handlers in zoos and circuses were much like Asian mahouts, except that they were self-taught rather than the sons of traditional elephant-keeping families. Mostly poor and uneducated farm boys, the Western youth, like their Asian counterparts, were athletic and long inured to hard living, to kicks from horses and cows, and to being on call 24 hours a day. Working for low pay and given little esteem, their lives fairly closely paralleled the lives of mahouts in Asia, even down to an almost casual attitude towards the dangers involved. Though extremely competent, these working-class men were often ignorant of the finer points of ‘elephant psychology’ and - at least from today’s perspective - too quick and too strong in exercising physical control.

Such rough-and-ready elephant keeping methodologies have evolved into quite sophisticated styles. In Europe a kinder and more insightful tradition evolved largely from the famous Hagenbeck circus in Germany. In North America, a later generation of mahouts - of which Smokey Jones is a prime example - discovered that studying and utilizing elephant psychology delivered better results than did the infliction of pain. Over time, in both Europe and North America there arose a nucleus of trainers different from but quite as perceptive, competent, and polished as even the best mahouts of surviving traditions in Asia.

The solid foundation of the ‘circus tradition’ has been expanded by a new generation of cosmopolitan trainers, many with a strong intellectual or emotional interest in elephants. Many modern keepers and trainers have academic backgrounds or are self-educated in subjects such as ethology or biology. (Many elephant-keeping facilities are free and easy societies where zoo keepers rub elbows comfortably with university professors.) To discourse sensibly about training nowadays you must be conversant with concepts such as negative reinforcement, operant conditioning, successive approximation, etc. Unfortunately the various training systems have not been well documented, the best publicized perhaps being Richard Maguire’s Standard Training and Reinforcement System (STARS). Most trainers are generous with their knowledge, however, quite unlike in much of Asia where secrecy is often the rule.

The primary aim of all Western systems, just as with the most sophisticated Eastern systems, is to get maximum results while minimizing the pain and stress inflicted on the elephants. When competently practiced, modern training systems are mostly quite successful. Such modern methods, adapted for local conditions, have great potential value in Asia wherever traditional keeping cultures have degraded or where new mahouts must be trained from scratch.

· See “Modern elephant training,” page 256.

Unfortunately, the high standards of keeping and training in the best Western institutions are not universal, and all too many keepers lack the experience to even keep themselves safe. Sophisticated Western control methods, just as those of the East, require great knowledge and experience, the lack of which results in human deaths, probably more deaths proportionately in the West than in the East.

Human mortality

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics rates the job of keeping elephants as the most dangerous profession in North America. Elephant handling is, according to Sahagun (1994), “three times more hazardous than coal mining....” Between 1976 and 1994 there were 21 people killed by elephants, most of them trainers and handlers. Fatalities averaged about one a year for the two decades prior to 1993, a year in which four keepers were killed by elephants (Biederman, 1994). Allen (1995) says, “Since 1990, at least 18 people have been killed by elephants in captivity.” Height (1991) reports that in the prior three years four keepers, including one with 18 years of experience, had been killed, all by bulls; he says, “It is important to realize that elephants kill more zoo personnel than all other species of animals kept in zoos and circuses - combined.” Such accounts leave no doubt but that anybody who chooses to work hands-on with elephants is putting their life at risk.

Deaths of keepers were once hushed up or appeared only in local newspapers, but modern media have put the human-elephant relationship under a glaring spotlight. Millions of people who believed all elephants to be intrinsically gentle had their eyes opened in August 1994 when the television news showed them a circus elephant, a 21-year old African cow named Tyke, killing her trainer, savaging her groomer, and injuring, directly or indirectly, 13 bystanders. (Tyke herself was within minutes shot dead by police on the streets of Honolulu.)

Failures in mahoutship are witnessed most visibly in human deaths, but until recently there were also parallel secret killings of elephants seen as ‘aggresive’ or ‘uncontrollable’. Analysis of the deaths of 79 Asian elephants between 1915 and 1983 in North America showed that nine deaths (11.3%) were ascribed to euthanasia due to temperament, the third highest cause of death following euthanasia due to illness and gastrointestinal problems (Fraser, 1983). It is safe to assume that a disproportionate number of the nine ‘destroyed’ animals were bulls. Deaths from being ‘put down’, the euphemism often used in official records, were undoubtedly far more common than Fraser’s small sample and are a sad measure of past management strategies in the West. Today, gratuitously shooting elephants is impossible because of public opinion and, to be fair, because of genuine sensitivity and awareness on the part of all zoos and most circus owners and managers.

From an Asian perspective, the keepers’ deaths are normal and expected but to ‘put down’ elephants is strange, since in Asia domesticated elephants have rarely been killed even in the course of a rampage, much less in cold blood. The cliché would have it, with some truth, that human life is cheap in Asia. Even though life was never discarded casually, elephants simply were too valuable to be destroyed. Further, in Asia the potential for violence was universally and unquestioningly accepted as an intrinsic element of elephant nature.

Free contact, protected contact, or confined contact?

Human deaths in North America and Europe have recently provoked a major shift in keeping procedures. There are three broad types of keeping: free contact, protected contact, and confined contact (or no contact). Free contact is simply new jargon for traditional, hands-on keeping. Protected contact depends greatly on the use of physical devices (enclosures, hydraulic doors, restraint chutes, etc.) to minimize contact between keepers and elephants. Confined contact is basically much like protected contact but with absolutely minimal interaction. “Elephant management is at a crucial time in North America,” writes Castro (1994), “There is much controversy over which management system is better.” He adds, “The Board of Directors of AZA believe that the future management of captive elephants should be based on methods associated with protective contact. The Board of Directors of the EMA believe that the future management of captive elephants is best accomplished through free contact supplemented by protective and confined contact.”

The Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, for long the showpiece of captive breeding in North America, is also one of the world’s earliest model physical facilities designed for safety, dating from the early 1960s. “To this day, thirty-one years later, most zoos in the world still cannot safely house a bull elephant,” wrote Schmidt (1992). The Los Angeles Zoo recently spent US$1.2 million to improve its facility for four elephants, all cows (two African and two Asian). While aiming to increase comfort for the elephants, the primary goal was to enable protected contact keeping. The renovated elephant barn has 22 hydraulic doors and gates which can be moved to create individual stalls. Biederman (1994) says, “The gates, which weigh as much as an elephant, can be moved by hand or operated remotely from a control room equipped with video monitors.”

Although the practice of protected contact sounds ideal, it has provoked passionate attacks from traditionalists and bitter acrimony within institutions. One purely economic problem with protected contact is that only the best funded public zoos (and circuses, for bulls) can afford the essential facilities. Two elephant-specific problems often raised to criticize protected contact are that it makes providing veterinary treatment difficult (unless facilities are extremely sophisticated) and that protected contact can cause elephants to suffer from isolation, boredom, and lack of exercise.

A human problem with protected contact is that jobs at public zoos are well-paid civil service posts tending to attract job applicants who would refuse the job if it meant working with a problem elephant in an open enclosure. Protected contact situations can too easily be seen as a ‘food in-dung out’ operation. Protected-contact keepers thus often lack the toughness, the athletic ability, and the elephant skills needed when physical handling is unavoidable. A journalist (Biederman, 1994) wrote, “Some critics say protected contact is a cop-out by zoos fearful of lawsuits and unwilling to commit the enormous time and resources needed to train staff properly to work with elephants without barriers.”

Despite the danger of free contact, Roocroft and Zoll (1994) argue cogently for a traditional hands-on approach, saying, “Yet it is a risk most willingly accepted by those who genuinely cherish this remarkable animal and see the spread of protected contact as a grim threat not only to their profession, but also the continuity of the man-elephant relationship.” One prominent trainer, David Blasko, in the course of an interview (Bolling, 1994), said, “I think some facilities are looking at it [protected contact] as an easy solution to a difficult problem,” but he adds, “It’s time to quit arguing about protected contact and free contact, and confined contact, put it all on the shelf. Let’s just take everybody’s best of what they can do at their facility....” And such a common sense use of available resources, both facilities and personnel, would seem the best way to choose the method of keeping. Some establishments practice free contact with cows but keep their bulls in protected confinement. Houck (1996) describes a US$5 million dollar facility built by a circus in which cows are worked but four adult bulls are kept basically in protected contact.

Free conduct does not work unless you have competent keepers, and protected contact does not work without expensive facilities. Having both competent staff and sophisticated facilities is the best of both possible worlds, while having poor staff and poor facilities is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The problem is compounded because the best trainers and keepers are attracted to the best facilities, while the worst keepers and beginners gravitate to the worst facilities.

From an Asian perspective, it is all rather bewildering and even amusing: hydraulic doors that cost more than an elephant, elephant movements monitored on video screens and remotely controlled from an air-conditioned room, and a US$5 million facility to hold only 28 elephants. (With US$5 million you could buy perhaps 800 to 1,000 elephants in Asia.) Even stranger to Asian eyes is that a well-deserved warning whack on the head of a willfully stubborn elephant could create a public uproar and accusations of cruelty.

Cultural dimensions

Succinctly catching the contemporary social dilemma of keeping elephants in the West, Roocroft and Zoll (1994) state that even after centuries of experience “captivity in zoos produces aberrant behavior in elephants and elephants, as confined in zoos, pose a significant threat to the people assigned to care for them.... It is not hyperbole to say that a kind of ‘state of war’ has existed between elephants and zoos.” This ‘war’ is not new; at the New York Zoological Park in 1915 an elephant named Gunda, quite dangerous in musth even though he had never killed anybody, was shot after a long and acrimonious series of letters to the editor in The New York Times (Bridges, 1974). Recently the “state of war” between man and elephant has in most places become three-sided with the emergence a highly aware public and crusading NGOs, usually acting as partisans for elephants and sniping at zoo and circuses, though not necessarily with any clear understanding of the complexity of the problems and the no-win decisions faced by the keepers.

Television undoubtedly spelled the death knell of the traditional zoo as a cultural institution. By bringing free-ranging wild animals into millions of living rooms, the nature documentary rendered zoos, if not abhorrent, at least greatly in need of change. And progressive changes have come: keeping higher numbers of fewer species, doing captive breeding, stressing education, becoming involved overseas, etc. Nonetheless, in a great cultural shift, the zoo, for one generation a pleasant and educational place to take the children on Sunday, had to many of those children become a chamber of horrors.

In 1988 a difficult to control 18-year old African cow, Dunda, was transferred from the San Diego Zoological Society’s zoo to its Wild Animal Park where she was subjected to some physical discipline (Seligmann, 1988). The Humane Society of the United States and some of her former keepers considered the episode “a clear case of abuse.” Before the incident cooled down, the homes and cars of three of the keepers accused of “beating” Dunda were vandalized, causing US$30,000 of damage. A similar episode at the San Francisco Zoo provoked a local scandal - and great internal dissension amongst staff - when a 7,000-pound Asian cow known to be “aggressive” was disciplined with an elephant hook in a “behavior modification program.” Until recently in the West, just as in Asia to this day, physical chastisement was considered to be standard, appropriate procedure for elephants which ‘misbehave’.

The only safe thing to said about such a reformist milieu is that the confluence of elephant nature and political correctness makes for very turbulent waters. Anything can happen in a country where there are 65 support groups for people whose pets have died and where some dogs are prescribed Prozac for nervous conditions. Seen from traditional Asia, it is all quite bizarre, but the same modern sensibilities are now emerging amongst an urban middle class in Thailand and India and will probably spread further afield in Asia.


“In European zoos and circuses the Asian elephant is bound for extinction within the next 20-30 years, since most groups kept in zoos are in no way fit for continuous and successful reproduction,” said Kurt (1994), who suggests that Western zoos should improve their living conditions in the hope of getting “surplus offspring” from Asia. The North American population seems better off than Europe but faces the same gloomy future: neither population is self-sustaining and each will become less so as time passes. If birth rates stay as low as at present and if AI should remain a hopeless goal, the West will someday badly want (some people would say need) breeding elephants from Asia; there could be moves to relax CITES regulations and national laws to allow for the freer import of breeding stock.

Allowing the import of elephants from Asia, even if strictly limited to bona fide institutions, would require a different policy in interpreting CITES and USFWS regulations. One prominent trainer, David Blasko, in the course of an interview (Bolling, 1994) suggested the possibility of importing elephants from Asia under a CITES exemption for protecting genetic diversity. (Blasko warns, however, that, “If we have 25 facilities that are dedicated to breeding elephants and 20 of those facilities don’t have any males, how dedicated are they?”) The potential of domesticated Asian elephants in Asia to support or interact with elephants held captive in the West is impossible to foretell but possibly immense.

Conversely, of what significance are the Asian elephants held captive in the West to their cousins on the mother continent? It is most unlikely, although not totally inconceivable, that Asian elephants from North America or Europe will ever be released into the wild in Asia. (Release in the mother continent has happened with returned African elephants.) Thus, unlike their colleagues who keep oryx or orangutans or many other endangered species, the keepers of 1,000 elephants in the West cannot see themselves as custodians of the ‘The Ark’, simply because Asia already has 16,000 uniquely pre-adapted elephants kept in domesticity.

The West possesses much knowledge - restraint gear, training techniques, drug therapy, nutrition, etc. - which could and should be more effectively imparted to Asia, particularly to managers but even to mahouts. The West, both its peoples and its governments, also has an extraordinary amount of unselfish goodwill. The major obstacle is the lack of channels to conduit help, funds, and knowledge.

Managers and keepers in the West have long benefited from frequent symposia, workshops, and meetings. (One American zoo manager reported having attended 14 such events during his career.) Probably only one Asian country, Thailand, holds regular national meetings on domesticated elephants. In Asia not a single international symposium has ever been devoted solely to 16,000 domesticated elephants, even at a time they desperately need some strategic thinking on their behalf. Elephant-keeping countries in Asia, particularly the more developed countries, are badly in need of better diffusion of knowledge and increased professional collaboration, a process which the West can greatly aid.

· See “The role of the West,” page 261.

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