In Defense of Animals News Release

Harmful Zoo Conditions at Heart of Memphis Zoo Elephant Tragedy


July 9, 2009

Contact: Catherine Doyle, 323-301-5730
Suzanne Roy, 919-697-9389

Wild elephant mothers donít kill their calves, experts say

Memphis, Tenn.–Harmful zoo practices and conditions lie at the heart of Memphis Zoo's elephant tragedy, the international animal protection organization In Defense of Animals (IDA) charged today, backed by information from top authorities on elephant behavior and biology. They refer to yesterday's incident in which Memphis Zoo elephant Asali fatally injured her day-old calf by goring her with her tusk.

IDA released a statement by Dr. Keith Lindsay, conservation biologist with thirty years experience studying wild elephants in Africa with the Amboseli Elephant Research Project:

"The tragedy in Memphis is yet another zoo disaster and a clear example of the lack of effective socialisation of these poor female elephants, growing up without the normal, rich environment of family life where they gain experience with elephant calves from a very early age.

In Amboseli National Park in Kenya, in the best and longest studied population of elephants in Africa, we now have recorded over 1900 births since September 1972. We have no evidence of any calf being killed by its mother or any other elephant. In fact, elephant mothers are always very careful with calves and especially newborns, and they start learning this behaviour when they are still young themselves, in the context of caretaking of younger brothers and sisters. In zoos, this necessary socialization is lacking and tragedy is all too often the result."

Dr. Lindsay, based in UK, is available to speak with interested media today.

World renowned elephant expert Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who has worked with wild elephants in Africa for over 50 years and has been featured twice on CBS "60 Minutes" program and in numerous documentaries, echoed Dr. Lindsay's observations. Asked to comment on the zoo's explanation of the baby elephant's death - that she was fatally injured by her mother's tusk when her mother was trying to help her stand - Dr. Sheldrick said:

This would never happen under Natural conditions, but elephants kept in captivity are psychologically abnormal, & the killing of a calf happens quite frequently under conditions of captivity.

IDA harshly criticized the zoo for its treatment of Asali, who was:

  • Asali has suffered many devastating losses throughout her young life. Her mother died before she was 8, leaving Asali alone and without the guidance of older female elephants. Elephants in the wild stay with their mothers for life.
  • Repeatedly subjected to a brutal surgical artificial insemination (AI) procedure, after which she suffered infections at the incision site. In one case, the wound took almost two months to heal. At another time, the raw incision was left open to facilitate a second AI attempt the next day. Though restrained, Asali often struggled against the sometimes hours-long procedures, at least once suffering abrasions in the process.

For more information, see the summary Memphis Zoo's elephant medical records, obtained by IDA under Tennessee public records law, or the records themselves.

IDA also raised questions about whether Asali was chained during labor and delivery, noting that zoo video shows Asali wearing shackles while interacting with her newborn.

"Zoos routinely forcibly impregnate inexperienced and traumatized females who have grown up without the necessary socialization and support to become mothers, force them to give birth on chains without the company of other elephants and then are surprised when tragedy strikes," said Suzanne Roy, IDA program director. "It happens over and over again. Elephants are highly evolved, intelligent and emotionally complex animals. This kind of brutal treatment by zoos must stop."

Zoo breeding disasters are common and include:

  • An infant mortality rate four times higher than that of documented free-ranging populations in Africa and Asia.
  • At least 16 elephant pregnancies that have ended in stillbirths or other complications, resulting in 16 dead babies and four dead mothers since 2001
  • Five dead elephants this year in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoos.

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