Is this the future of zoos?

As Americans rethink how animals should be treated – from food production to SeaWorld shows – zoos face an uncertain future. New ideas are emerging.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Toka, a 46-year-old female from Mozambique, strolls along a section of the 80-acre African elephant enclosure at the ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Toka came to the sanctuary from Canada in 2013, after the Toronto Zoo decided to permanently close its elephant exhibit.

The four African elephants move with a slow, ambling grace as they make their separate ways from one end to the other of their grassy enclosure. One stops to graze. Another wanders over to a fence, trunk swaying.

After years spent in cramped exhibits, the elephants' 80-acre natural-habitat spread at the ARK 2000 sanctuary in Calaveras County is a haven.

Yet from atop a nearby hill, where a cool breeze offsets the scorching California sun, Ed Stewart surveys his charges with a measure of regret.

“Today’s a good day. They’re all out grazing, walking up and down the hills, sleeping,” says Mr. Stewart, co-founder and director of the Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS), which built and runs the 2,500-acre sanctuary whose sprawling hills, meadows, and forests evoke the setting of the original “Jurassic Park” film. “Times like this, you feel good about giving everybody a new home.”

But “this is [the] minimum,” he says. “I wish we could do more.”

In some ways, Stewart’s inner conflict reflects part of a broader conversation taking place within the scientific and conservationist communities around the question of captivity – not just of elephants, but of any animal.

While some groups argue that taking in animals from the wild is critical to keeping species alive and educating the public, others are disputing the validity of any preservation strategy that involves violence or captivity – and discussing alternatives to killing or capturing in the name of conservancy.

The approach – known as “compassionate,” or “ethical,” conservation – draws from growing research that supports treating animals as individuals with distinct personalities and intrinsically valuable lives, instead of anonymous members of a species.

“I do think there has been an increase in conversations about the value of individual animals’ well-being in conservation,” says Lori Gruen, professor of philosophy and co-coordinator of Wesleyan Animal Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “Who are the individuals? What roles do they play? How does enhancing their well-being trickle down to the community? Those are the clear issues that you need to understand, [and] I think it’s still coming to light.”

“The discussion is focusing [more] not only on how we interact with wild animals, but also how we treat captive animals,” adds renowned ethologist Marc Bekoff, a fellow for the Animal Behavior Society and former professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It’s stressing that you and me, and dogs and cats, all our lives matter. It’s about striving for peaceful co-existence.”

They're 'not designed to live captive'

Even in dusty gray cargo pants and scuffed boots, Stewart of PAWS looks more the doting grandfather than impassioned activist. Yet he is among those who adamantly oppose captivity, and sees the sanctuary he helped build as a kind of necessary evil; a place where animals, if they must be kept captive, can at least experience a semblance of life in the wild.

“We tried to build something more enriched – a happy resting ground for all of [these animals],” Stewart says. “But it’s still a step way down from the wild.”

He notes how almost all the creatures at ARK arrive weak or unhealthy and live shortened lives: One tiger, Grace, had been kept illegally as a pet and died in February 2015 after years of suffering from deformities in her paws as a result of being declawed. Over the summer, Iringa, an African elephant, succumbed to degenerative joint and foot disease.

“They’re just not designed to live captive,” Stewart says.

Others are coming to a similar conclusion. Public outrage in the wake of documentaries such as “An Apology to Elephants” and “Blackfish” has been partly responsible for shaking up two industries that rely heavily on animals: food and entertainment.

Some states, for instance, have begun outlawing the use of cramped cages for pigs and chickens, along with other husbandry practices considered inhumane, Fabien Tepper reported for the Monitor in 2014. Some of the nation’s largest restaurants, food processors, and distributors have also started to urge their suppliers to end such practices, Ms. Tepper wrote.  

Zoos have also begun closing exhibits that feature so-called charismatic species – large animals with popular appeal, such as elephants – in an acknowledgement that they can’t adequately provide for such creatures. As of 2014, only about a third of the 224 zoos accredited by the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had elephant exhibits, compared to more than half of 147 facilities in 1989, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Following the furor over “Blackfish,” which accused SeaWorld of abusing orcas in its care, the California Coastal Commission approved the theme park’s request to expand its orca tanks in San Diego – but announced SeaWorld could no longer capture any new animals in the wild or breed calves in captivity.

In March 2015, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would retire its elephant act in 2018, citing a “mood shift” among customers.

And in July, Cecil the lion – a well-known collared resident at the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe – sparked an international outcry after he was shot and killed by an American trophy hunter.

“[Cecil] was seen as an individual,” says Catherine Doyle, director of science, research, and advocacy at PAWS. “And if you take an individual and you put them in a cage or you kill them, that’s bad. That’s awful. If you look at [animals] individually, you can’t do that.”

The case for confinement

Despite the shift away from keeping animals in captivity, some groups, including the AZA, still say that taking in animals from the wild is an important conservation strategy and critical to raising awareness among the public.

“The fastest and most direct way for people to save and care about an endangered species is to connect with them,” says Rob Vernon, the AZA’s communications coordinator. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to go to Africa, and the one and only place they can do that is zoos.”

In January and in the face of controversy, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service approved a request to import 18 African elephants from Swaziland to three US zoos: the Dallas Zoo, the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb.

Room for Rhinos, the partnership that is supervising the project, says the move is necessary because a surplus of elephants are displacing rhinos and damaging parks in Swaziland. If the elephants aren’t relocated, they’ll be killed, the group says. Throw in the current drought crisis in the south African country, and facilitating the transfer becomes even more urgent.

“As drought conditions throughout Swaziland worsen and food sources become scarcer, the zoos are eager to relocate these animals to provide them a healthy life in a safe home,” writes Laurie Holloway, senior director for marketing and communications at the Dallas Zoo, in an e-mailed statement.

Some conservationists and advocates, however, don't agree. In February, animal rights group Friends of Animals sued in federal court to reverse the decision to allow the import to take place – an ongoing litigation process that means that none of the zoos can comment on the issue, Ms. Holloway wrote.

“We are hopeful for a quick resolution that enables the relocation of the animals,” she notes.  

Dr. Bekoff, the former University of Colorado professor, challenges the claim that zoos have been able to adequately care for elephants in their facilities. He points to a 2012 Seattle Times investigation, which found that of 390 elephant fatalities at AZA-accredited zoos over the last 50 years, most died of injury or disease linked to captivity.

Of 321 elephant deaths for which the Times had full records, half were dead by age 23, according to the report. Elephants in the wild can live up to 60 years.

“[T]he decades-long effort by zoos to preserve and protect elephants is failing, exacerbated by substandard conditions and denial of mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity,” the Times concluded.

At the San Andreas sanctuary, Stewart shakes his head at the argument that people need to see animals to learn about nature and conservation.  

“A young child can tell you more about a dinosaur than he can about an elephant,” he says as he drives down the path to the elephant preserve in a pickup as gray and dusty as his pants. “You don’t need an elephant in a cage to learn about elephants.”

'We gotta stop'

Still, even Stewart says that to paint all zoos as the bad guys would be misleading.

Over the years, the AZA – the top accrediting body for zoos and aquariums in the US – has revised its standards to match new research about the needs of different animals. The group’s Mr. Vernon notes that the AZA spends millions of dollars every year on wildlife conservation and hosts educational programs for both students and teachers to help them learn about conservation efforts.

For facilities maintaining elephants, the AZA’s latest requirements include behavioral profiles for each elephant, a breakdown of discipline methods, chaining practices, and foot care schedules, and regular incident reports.

“All of our elephant holders are fantastic members,” Vernon says. “They’re great zoos and have absolute passion for caring for their animals.”

Some zoos, such as the Detroit Zoo, have taken those standards even further. In 2005, Detroit became one of the first to close its elephant exhibit, sending the animals to a sanctuary after deciding it couldn’t provide the space or climate control the animals needed.

“There was no way to get to a point, in our view, that would make any sense, just as we could never envision keeping cetaceans [scientific order for large, carnivorous marine mammals including dolphins and orcas] here in a captive way that would ever even remotely satisfy what they need,” says Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society. “At a certain point you go, ‘we gotta stop.’”

In the decade that followed, Detroit focused its efforts on showing how amphibians and other, less charismatic creatures contribute to ecosystems. Today the Detroit Zoo’s amphibian exhibit, located in two acres of Michigan wetland and called Amphibiville, is hailed by conservationists and advocates as a model of what zoos can do to protect species and educate the public in a compelling way – without harming large animals. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the exhibit “Disneyland for toads.”

Key to their efforts, Mr. Kagan says, was a sense of compassion – something that, ironically, is rarely present in the wild.

“There isn’t really a lot of compassion in nature. Life in the wild is extremely difficult for just about anything. But humans have the ability to do that,” he says. “Our take is that we should be extremely careful not to have it fundamentally appear as if it’s a beauty contest.”

The money that could go to caring for 100 captive pandas, for instance, “would likely save a thousand species of amphibians,” he notes. “It’s important not to play favorites just because something is pretty.”

'Our role in the planet'

As he tosses carrots, guava, and other treats to Thika – a 36-year-old female African elephant who came to ARK after the Toronto Zoo closed its exhibit in 2011 – Stewart laments having to keep her, or any animals, confined at all.

“We have to change direction, hit the brakes,” Stewart says. “We need to change the way we’re doing things.”

But efforts such as the Detroit Zoo’s, as well as the rise of technology that helps raise awareness of new conservation methods, give him hope.

“Things are starting to happen a lot faster now,” he says. “Thirty years ago people didn’t have a clue that circus elephants live in chains for most of their lives. Since the advent of … the Internet and social media, it’s easier to get the word out."

Professor Gruen of Wesleyan University thinks people are becoming more conscious of the kind of ecological legacy they want to leave future generations. To her, it's a matter of whether people are willing to think "differently about our role in the planet."

 “When their grandchild looks at them [someday] and says, ‘Well, what did you do when there were elephants still on the planet?'... People want to be able to look their grandchildren in the eye and say that ... they didn’t just ignore it,” she says.

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