Elephants need friends and puzzles more than zoo space

The biggest-ever study on zoo elephants reveals how North American zoos can make their captive land giants the happiest.

Dallas Zoo/AP
One of five African elephants brought to the Dallas Zoo after their rescue from the southern African nation of Swaziland delivered this male calf in May. Elephants living in captivity thrive best in stimulating environments, according to a study published Thursday.

Elephants are the planet’s largest land mammals, but if they have friends, family, and puzzles to solve, it doesn’t matter too much to them how big their home is.

Those are the surprising findings in a new, biggest-ever study on zoo-elephant welfare that closely studied the lives of 255 African and 68 Asian elephants across accredited North American zoos, as society's taste in animal care shows signs of a shift.

“This is the first coordinated set of studies aimed at evaluating a number of behavioral and physical aspects of welfare for the North American zoo elephant population and, importantly, identifying the most important aspects of elephant management, housing and care,” said Cheryl Meehan, a University of California, Davis, staff research associate at the university’s veterinary school, which played a key role in the study.

The study informs a recent wave of calls for more humane enclosures for animals bred for entertainment and education, as well as for slaughter, largely driven by shifting public attitudes about animal welfare. Both SeaWorld Entertainment's and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus have reconsidered the use of large animals in their live shows in response to consumer pressure. Just earlier this month, Perdue responded to customer and activist concerns by pledging to improve the living conditions of 700 million chickens.

Dr. Meehan hopes her data will help zoos around the country improve the living conditions of their elephants by investing in stimulating environments.

“We expected to find associations between the size of zoo exhibits and welfare, but space ended up being of minor importance when compared to social factors and management practices such as enrichment programs,” Ms. Meehan said.

Among other key findings, researchers said female elephants who had “enrichment opportunities” such as using puzzle feeders to gain access to food had better reproductive functions.

They found that elephants who spent time alone were at greater risk, while those who spent time in groups, particularly including younger elephants, had a “protective effect.”

The study found that behaviors like swaying and rocking were key indicators that an elephant’s welfare was compromised. It also revealed that hard flooring was damaging to an elephant’s health.

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