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Our unexpected visit to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo

By Mickey Suzuki

A few weekends ago, we shared the news over social media that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo had transferred our client Vusmusi to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, apparently because they weren’t successful in their efforts to use him for breeding with Nolwazi and her daughter Amahle. This is a behind-the-scenes look at what went on that weekend. 

Late in the afternoon on Friday, November 11th, the first day of the 2022 PAWS International Captive Wildlife Conference in Sacramento, Courtney Fern, the NhRP’s Director of Government Relations and Campaigns, who was sitting next to me, leaned in and whispered with alarm, “Vusmusi’s been moved!” I looked at her in disbelief and she passed me her phone. On the screen showed a tweet by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance welcoming back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park an African bull elephant named Vusmusi. At that moment, our weekend of hearing from the foremost elephant experts and advocates of animal rights and protection turned into a somber road trip to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo to investigate.

Courtney immediately alerted the entire NhRP staff over email. NhRP Staff Attorney Jake Davis, who’d spoken about our work at the conference earlier that day, leapt from his seat and called Spencer, another NhRP attorney, to discuss whether any immediate legal recourse was available to us for responding to our client’s sudden transfer. Later, Courtney, Jake, and I huddled around Jake’s phone in the conference hall lobby to take a call with several other staff members. Around 6 p.m., we discussed several different legal options over speaker phone and decided that before we took any legal actions, we needed to see with our own eyes that Vusmusi had been moved and that our other two clients, Nolwazi and Amahle, were still there. Courtney booked a rental car on her phone and we caught an Uber to the airport to go pick up the car. 

The next morning at 6 a.m., Courtney and I met at the lobby of our hotel and got into our rental car to make the nearly three-hour drive from Sacramento to Fresno. We drove through sunrise and arrived in front of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo right before its opening time of 9 a.m. Before entering the zoo, we drove around the premises to see the zoo surrounded by major transportation arteries and railways. We also noticed major construction on the road directly outside the elephant exhibit and a nightclub at the zoo’s entrance. From the road outside, you could see straight into the back of the elephant exhibit where there is a largely concrete, windowless barn. 

Since people who work for the zoo likely know our faces at this point, Courtney and I tied up our hair and put on our sunglasses in an attempt to walk into the zoo inconspicuously. Once inside, we walked straight towards the elephant exhibit. An elephant came into sight, and as we got closer, Courtney knew something wasn’t right. “That’s a new elephant,” she said. The lone elephant inside the exhibit was noticeably larger than our three clients, and there was no sign of Nolwazi and her daughter Amahle. As we walked even closer to the exhibit, we spotted a group of zookeepers and a professional photographer huddled together. They were pointing at the elephant and making remarks about how “he was settling in well.” The photographer was snapping shots of the elephant as zoo staff used treats to get Mabu to walk around the perimeter of the exhibit, allowing the photographer to capture his face from different angles. It was then that we knew for sure that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo had replaced Vusmusi with another African bull elephant. 

I asked one of the staff if they usually have more than one elephant on display. They were excited to let me know that this new elephant had just arrived less than 72 hours ago and that he was being trained by himself to get used to his new surroundings. Until the training was completed, they said, they aren’t able to let all three elephants out at the same time. When pressed a little further, one staff member told me that Vusmusi wasn’t “properly trained” to breed with Nolwazi and Amahle and that this new elephant had arrived so that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo could welcome a baby elephant within the next two years. Courtney asked the new elephant’s name, which is how we came to learn Mabu was the elephant brought in to breed with the two female elephants. Courtney recognized Mabu’s name and knew he was previously held captive in the Tucson Reid Park Zoo. Further research showed he has been transferred several times between several AZA zoos and fathered fifteen captive elephants, making him one of the most exploited elephants in the US zoo system.

Courtney and I had enough information to leave the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, and we couldn’t wait to drive out of there. It’s never a good feeling to purchase tickets for the zoo and know you’ve contributed towards keeping their doors open. It’s sickening to walk around pretending to be a regular zoo patron enjoying a day of seeing animals, all the while knowing the suffering that’s going on behind each enclosure. It’s difficult not to interject when overhearing parents telling their children that animals are dancing when they’re clearly showing signs of distress. But as part of our mission and specifically this case, we knew it was imperative to do our due diligence and see exactly what’s been taking place at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Before driving back, we called the legal team to let them know what we’d learned so they could factor it into their next steps. Later that evening once we were back in Sacramento, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo announced its new arrival with a professional photograph of Mabu.

Less than two weeks since Vusmusi was relocated, Courtney alerted the NhRP staff of a few new zoo announcements. The Oklahoma City Zoo recently received Bowie, a 9-year-old male Asian elephant, from the Fort Worth Zoo to breed with their female elephants. Last week, the Cincinnati Zoo transferred Sabu, a 34-year-old male Asian elephant, to the Columbus Zoo. Finally, the National Zoo received two female Asian elephants (who are mother and daughter) from the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. An article in the Washington Post included a telling quote from one of the zoo employees:

The objective is for Spike to breed with both newcomers. ‘He’s a really nice bull,” she said. ‘I think they’re going to like him a lot.’ Spike’s genes are important because he has not yet fathered any offspring. Zoos say diversifying gene pools by bringing in new animals is critical to the preservation of a species. ‘It would be nice if both [females] had a couple of calves on the ground in a couple years,’ she said.

These transfers from barren zoo exhibit to barren zoo exhibit–which disrupt already highly constricted family and other social bonds–are not about saving elephants; they’re about maintaining a captive population of elephants for zoos to continue to exploit. Despite what zoos claim, there’s no conservational benefit to imprisoning and breeding elephants in US zoos–the elephants born in AZA facilities are intended to stay there. There is no evidence that seeing elephants in captivity in zoos results in their protection in their natural habitats. Some may find it surprising that zoos also do little to aid on-the-ground conservation efforts, with AZA facilities allocating less than five percent of  their exorbitant budget to  conservation efforts. Regardless, nothing about the captive breeding of elephants justifies the suffering the elephants involved endure. This unjust, unethical practice only goes to repopulate a captive population and perpetuates a cycle of exploitation and suffering that needs to be stopped. 

To that end, the legal fight to #FreeTheFresnoElephants continues. While the news of all these transfers was still emerging, we learned the Fresno Superior Court had denied the elephants’ habeas petition on the grounds that the petition does not allege, as the Court believes it must, that the elephants are held in “state custody” (due to, for example, a prison sentence imposed by a court). Our next legal step, then, is to challenge this decision; we look forward to sharing details in the coming weeks. We’ll also be continuing to fight for Vusmusi’s freedom and determining how best to bring on Mabu as a client. In the long term, we’ll keep up the fight to secure fundamental rights for nonhuman animals for as long as it takes to ensure that elephants are no longer imprisoned and exploited. 

Watch our interview with Gigi Glendinning, a photographer and animal advocate who documented the hard-to-see, defining features of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s elephant exhibit: wires and barriers. To learn more about our case and campaign on behalf of the Fresno elephants, please visit For a detailed timeline of the Fresno elephants’ case, court filings, and decisions, visit this page.

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