Campaigns - St. Louis Zoo
No room to roam
The St. Louis Zoo in Missouri exhibits seven female Asian Elephants, Sri, Ellie, Rani, Donna, Pearl, Maliha (b. 2006) and Jade (b. 2007), and a male Asian Elephant, Raja, in a 1.2 acre exhibit dubbed the River’s Edge.
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The intense confinement suffered by the elephants at St. Louis Zoo – where eight elephants are crammed into three small exhibit yards and one off-view holding yard – is taking its toll. Veterinary records show the elephants have suffered from lameness, joint problems, chronic foot abscesses, arthritis, infections, cracked skin and nail problems.
St. Louis too cold for elephants
In addition to lack of space, the freezing St. Louis winters are especially brutal for the elephants, forcing them indoors for prolonged periods of time during cold weather, where they are confined in concrete-floored barn stalls. A typical stall is a mere 20 x 20 feet, the minimum allowed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
Free-ranging elephants range tens of miles a day in areas measured in square miles versus acres at a zoo. They are active for 20 out of 24 hours as they forage, explore, search for friends and socialize. With eight elephants sharing such a small amount of space and spending so much of their lives standing still on concrete at the St. Louis Zoo, it’s no wonder that they are suffering a range of problems.
Cramped unnatural conditions cause health problems
St. Louis Zoo has blamed the elephants' various health problems on age rather than lack of movement and hard ground surfaces. However, the fact that even the zoo’s younger elephants, Rani and Raja, have suffered from foot disorders belies the zoo’s claim. In addition, Rani has suffered from intermittent lameness since she was five.
An autopsy report for a 32-year-old elephant named Carolyn who died prematurely at the St. Louis Zoo in 2000 revealed that she also suffered from arthritis and foot problems. Clara was euthanized in 2007 at age 52 after suffering from debilitating foot disease and arthritis. IDA is concerned that the remaining elephants may suffer a similar fate if nothing is done to improve their living conditions.
Citing these inadequate conditions, IDA submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) charging the St. Louis Zoo with violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, which mandates that zoos provide elephants with adequate space and conditions conducive to their well-being. IDA based the complaint on zoo’s medical records obtained through the Missouri Public Records Law. After a public comment period that produced thousands of responses, the petition is still pending.
The elephants’ unnatural life has also resulted in abnormal behaviors. Shortly after the birth of her calf Jade in 2007, Rani rejected her. (See more information about Captive Breeding.) Calf rejection is generally unheard of in wild populations. However, it is prevalent in zoos, where female elephants do not have the chance to socialize normally and learn appropriate mothering behaviors.
St. Louis Zoo has landed on IDA’s list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants so many times that in we finally decided in 2008 to give them a place in our permanent Hall of Shame. True to form, following release of the list the zoo sent IDA a letter threatening legal action regarding statements made about space and the amount of time the elephants are forced indoors during the winter. Ironically, on the day the letter arrived, we received photos of the St. Louis Zoo’s elephant exhibit covered in ice. The zoo has threatened legal action before, but never responded after IDA stood up to the legal bullying by providing facts to document our statements.
Lethal elephant virus strikes St. Louis Zoo
In 2009, two-year-old Jade was stricken with the Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV), an often-fatal disease that is seriously impacting Asian elephants in zoos in North America and Europe. The virus mainly strikes young Asian elephants and produces a hemorrhagic disease so lethal it has about a 90 percent mortality rate.
Despite years of research, little is known about this terrible disease, yet even high-risk zoos continue to recklessly breed elephants. In a 2007 report on EEHV, IDA identified St. Louis Zoo as being at risk for the disease due to a number of factors, including the fact that the elephant Pearl had spent time at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, a hot spot for the disease, where she conceived Raja. Five elephants born at Dickerson have contracted EEHV; four died. In addition, Rani, Jade’s mother, was treated in August 2001 for “potential endotheliotropic herpesvirus infection,” according to zoo records.
EEHV appears to primarily affect elephants in captivity, with many fatal cases reported in zoos and in circuses. Since 1998, the disease has killed close to 40 percent of the Asian elephants born in AZA-accredited zoos in North America. A similar outbreak has not been seen in wild Asian elephant populations.
Fortunately, Jade survived after undergoing drastic veterinary measures, including a blood transfusion. Her half-sister, Maliha, was reported to have tested positive for the disease, but showed no symptoms.
Captive breeding woes
In 1999, the St. Louis Zoo spent $6.6 million on a new elephant exhibit and management facility specifically to acquire more elephants and start a captive breeding program. Since then, the Zoo's resident male elephant Raja has impregnated three of the females through planned pairings.
Ellie (b. 1971 in Thailand) gave birth to a female calf named Maliha on August 2, 2006. The calf was taken off display a month and a half later, after she failed to gain weight. She was force-feed with milk replacer and given rectal enemas to help maintain hydration on nine occasions, each of which required she be separated from her mother and sedated. Ellie was given a hormone to boost milk production.
Ellie’s other daughter Rani (b. 1996 in Jacksonville and transferred to St. Louis), who was impregnated at the too-young age of 8, gave birth to Jade on February 25, 2007, whom she then rejected. Zoo records state that the next day Rani “became agitated and directed behaviors at calf, necessitating keeper intervention.” Jade suffered “superficial abrasions and contusions” before being separated from her mother. The zoo sedated Rani on two occasions to facilitate nursing. One can only imagine the terrible impact of the rejection on little Jade, and the fear and confusion she must have felt when her own mother attacked her. Records indicate another incident in March, resulting in Jade displaying a “stumbling gait late last night" after an "altercation" with her mother.
The high failure rate of captive elephant breeding in zoos has also touched the St. Louis Zoo, when Sri's pregnancy tragically ended in November 2005. She carried her female calf for a full 22-month pregnancy, but the baby died in her womb before Sri went into labor. To date, Sri has not expelled the fetus. Similar situations have claimed the lives of three female elephants in recent years. Failure to expel the fetus can cause an elephant to develop a massive, systemic and fatal infection. Unnatural conditions for elephants giving birth, such as confinement alone in barren room (as with Sri, above) and chaining during labor, no doubt play a role in such tragedies.
Pearl suffers a prolapsed uterus from her first and only birth, Raja in 1992. Urinary incontinence from this condition has caused burning of the skin on her back legs and on the souls of her back feet from standing in urine.
Zoo breeding is not conservation
Like all zoos participating in the AZA’s captive breeding project, St. Louis Zoo officials claim that elephants must be propagated in zoos in order to ensure their survival in the wild. Yet captive breeding serves no conservation purpose, given that none of the elephants born in zoos will ever be reintroduced into the wild. And wild elephants are not threatened by inability to breed but rather by loss of habitat and illegal poaching. In fact, Asian elephant conservationists state that the problem is not too few elephants but too little space for the existing populations they are striving to protect.
In reality, zoos know that baby elephants bring customers – and more money – to the zoo, and that they attract the public for many years because their childhoods are longer than most other animals in zoos. The St. Louis Zoo noted that Raja’s birth in 1993 drew 100,000 visitors. But whether or not elephant exhibits are popular is irrelevant to what should be the real priority: the elephants’ health and well-being.
Please write to Mayor Francis Slay and ask him to help the elephants at St. Louis Zoo (the Zoo is supported by city and county taxpayer funds).
Mayor Francis G. Slay
St. Louis City Hall, Room 200
1200 Market Street
St. Louis, MO 63103
Email: Please use the on-line form