Sudden Death of Juvenile Zoo Elephant Raises Anew Issues of Life in Captivity

by  on 4 October 2017

  • Warren, a young male elephant, died recently during a dental procedure at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo.
  • Warren was one of 18 wild elephants captured from Swaziland 18 months ago and brought to three U.S. zoos in a controversial move.
  • Shortly after Warren’s arrival in March 2016, he lost a piece of one of his tusks. He died during one of the subsequent procedures aiming to fix it.

Staff at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo may never know what, exactly, caused the sudden death of Warren, a young male elephant about eight or nine years old who died recently during a dental procedure.

Warren was one of 18 wild elephants captured from Swaziland 18 months ago and brought to three U.S. zoos in a controversial move. Six went to the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, six to the Sedgwick County Zoo, in Wichita, Kansas, and five to the Dallas Zoo. One died awaiting relocation.

Shortly after Warren’s arrival in March 2016, he lost a piece of one of his tusks. Then the zoo noticed that a lengthwise split at the end of his tusk had spread toward the top. Elephants in zoos use their tusks to strip bark off trees and move objects.

“As he used it, the gap kept widening,” says Doug Armstrong, director of animal health at the Henry Doorly Zoo. Fearing an infection in the root, the zoo sedated and anesthetized Warren in July to trim his tusks. “Our hope was to cut off the part that was splitting. If there was no fresh fracture, he’d be able to use the tusk normally.”

But six weeks later, a new crack formed. Staff began training so they could repair it without having to sedate and anesthetize him, but the crack progressed quickly. On September 7 they put him under to mold the tusk and make a cap. About 20 minutes into the procedure, Warren’s breathing stopped. Nothing the medical team/veterinarians tried could revive him.

At a press conference, Armstrong said, “We instituted emergency procedures but they were unsuccessful. The elephant died. We don’t know the cause of death at this point. He was a young animal so it’s completely unexpected.” As he spoke, his voice cracked, the grief palpable.

Problems of captivity for elephants

“Zoo staff did what they could,” says Ed Stewart, president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, which runs sanctuaries in California for abused, abandoned, and retired captive wildlife, including elephants. “But it’s captivity itself that’s the problem.”

“Warren’s captivity is likely what prompted his tusk problem in the first place,” suggests Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, an elephant research and conservation organization. “I’ve never observed an elephant of his age with a broken or badly cracked tusk. The reason Warren’s tusk required treatment is undoubtedly due to the unnatural surfaces of his pen or enclosure. Elephants are so bored in captivity that they often repeatedly rub their tusks on the cables and wear them down. From images I have seen of Warren, his tusks look very worn—something you’d never see in the wild in an eight-to-nine-year-old elephant.”

Cynthia Moss, program director for Amboseli Trust for Elephants, a Kenya-based nonprofit, concurs. Since 1972 she’s documented the lives and deaths of roughly 3,000 elephants in the longest-running study of elephant behavior in the wild. She says she has never seen cracked tusks like that, especially on a young elephant.

“Sometimes adults might break a tusk in a fight,” she says. “That happens fairly frequently. If it breaks high enough up, then the elephant will lose that tusk altogether. If there’s a little left of the outer coat and nerve, then it’ll grow back. But we haven’t seen any cracked tusks and it would be extremely rare to break one.”

Abandonment of calves is another area where there are differences between wild and captive elephants.

A week before Warren’s death, the Pittsburgh Zoo euthanized a three-month-old calf that had been born prematurely and was rejected by its mother. Although staff tried multiple strategies to help—putting it with other elephants, hand feeding, using feeding tubes—the baby kept losing weight.

In the wild premature births are rare, Moss says. “I’ve only seen it once. It was heartbreaking. The mother picked up the baby and carried it 250 yards to get it into the shade. She stayed with it for two days after it died. She wasn’t about to desert it.”

Rejection seldom, if ever, happens in the wild, she says, “but in captivity it seems to happen a lot.” She thinks that’s because they don’t know what to do. They learn from living within a family—first as a baby, and later watching others and caring for calves as part of their extended family. “They have to see and experience it.”

Statistics seem to support that. A 2012 Seattle Times analysis of more than 300 elephant deaths at accredited U.S. zoos over a 50-year period found that the infant mortality rate in zoos was 40 percent, triple that for wild babies. It also found that half the elephants died young—by age 23—compared with an expected life span of 50 to 60 years in the wild.

Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, questions that gap, saying life expectancy figures for wild elephants would be shorter if they included those killed by snares and poaching and not just those dying of natural causes. Not only don’t elephants in human care have to worry about those dangers, he says, but AZA members support for ivory regulations was of enormous help as FWS struggled to get them through.

But a recent study by Moss of life expectancy for elephants in Amboseli found that even when droughts and poaching are taken into account, they live longer in the wild than in captivity: 44 years for females and 31 for males on average, with a maximum life span of 75 for females and 68 for males.

It’s not just life expectancy.

The Seattle Times investigation linked most of the elephant deaths to a captivity-related injury or disease, such as foot problems from standing on hard surfaces and arthritis from inactivity.

Further, captivity stresses elephants. According to a 2013 study led by the Honolulu Zoo on using science to understand zoo elephant welfare that analyzed thousands of medical records, videos, and fecal and other samples, roughly two-thirds developed stereotypic behaviors—like pacing, repetitive swaying, or head-bobbing—and suggested better management could reduce that.

At least 44 zoos around the world have closed their elephant exhibitions, including 29 in the U.S., according to an August 2017 report by conservation biologist Keith Lindsay, an elephant expert for the group Elephants in Japan.

Enhancing captive elephant welfare

“Elephant management has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” Henry Doorly Zoo’s Armstrong says. Indeed, the zoo’s new elephant facility reflects those changes. It has bigger spaces, a sandy floor to prevent foot problems, and uses hay-feeding nets and automated food dispensers to encourage movement. “We’ve tried to address past issues,” he says. “As we learn more, we’ll continue to change what we do.”

All that is important, says Ed Stewart, of PAWS. But, he adds, even with improvements in captive conditions for elephants, they might have “a better life, but it’s not even close to what they should have.”

“It’s not just the concrete or space,” he says. “They don’t have any function in captivity—it’s like they’re unemployed. Think of the texture of their life in the wild, their social structure. An elephant is a major part of an ecosystem. It’s like a symphony. In captivity it’s like one note.”

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