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What’s wrong with the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo elephant exhibit

By Nonhuman Rights

With every lawsuit we file, there’s obviously pushback, especially from well-established zoos. Many of them enjoy positive reputations in their communities. They believe they’re doing good work. They believe they take good care of the animals in their custody. Almost no zoo reacts positively to being told that what they’re doing is morally and legally wrong: that their exhibits are putting suffering on display every day. But at least as far as elephants are concerned, the science is clear that this is exactly what they’re doing, which is why we fight for elephants’ right to liberty and release from zoos—including the so-called “best” zoos.

With respect to the lawsuit we filed last week against the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on behalf of five female African elephants, this defensive response came at record speed in the form of a statement emailed to their members and posted across their social media platforms. Meant to reassure zoo visitors that the elephants are fine where they are, their statement actually shows—just as the Bronx Zoo’s did—the absurdity of the zoo’s position and the logical contortions zoos have to make to justify depriving elephants of their freedom.

But the facts are the facts.

Our legal arguments are based on scientific evidence that shows zoo exhibits cause great harm to elephants’ bodies and minds. Elephants suffer in zoo exhibits. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s exhibit is no exception.

Over the course of several years, we observed all the elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo engaging in abnormal behaviors indicative of trauma, brain damage, and chronic stress, such as rocking, swaying, and head-bobbing. Elephants living freely in their natural habitats simply do not engage in these behaviors. Why? Because they have vast, rich landscapes to roam and explore. They have the company of other elephants with whom they can communicate and make decisions about what to do and where to go. They have freedom of movement and choice.

The elephants at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo have none of these things. They spend every day in one of three exhibit yards that comprise less than an acre and prevent the elephants from walking more than 100 yards in any direction. When they’re not in these yards, they’re in a metal barn divided into stalls with a few hanging metal troughs and tires embedded into sand piles for enrichment. A few times a month during the summer, they’re allowed to use a two-acre “vacation yard” where they aren’t on display; the zoo says it limits their use of this grassy, private space to keep it interesting for the elephants (which should be a glaring sign to them that something is wrong with the rest of their exhibit). Sometimes, the elephants are allowed to use a quarter-mile walking path, which they’d have to traverse 80 times a day to come close to how far they’d walk were they living freely in their natural habitats.

With pride, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo states that the ability of the elephants to move multiple times a day “from yard to yard, or indoor space to indoor space” is sufficient for them. The zoo also claims that neither captive nor free elephants enjoy walking or need to walk, which is incorrect. As Dr. Bob Jacobs expressed in his commentary to us on the zoo’s statement, “the zoo doesn’t seem to understand that foraging (which includes walking) consists of more than 20 different behaviors (not just eating), and it constitutes much of a free-roaming elephant’s existence. The zoo also ignores the fact that movement is required to offset calorie intake—and that nearly three-quarters of the elephants in 65 AZA accredited zoos across North America were found to be overweight or obese, putting their health at risk.”

In addition, standing much of the day on packed dirt, rubberized concrete flooring, and other inappropriate substrates results in painful foot and joint problems that often become so bad the elephants have to be euthanized well before the end of their normal lifespans, which is what happened to a 37-year-old CMZ elephant named Malaika a few months ago.

Like all zoos, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo claims a conservation benefit to holding the elephants in captivity—that keeping elephants in exhibits is necessary to protect elephants in the wild. This is simply wrong. It’s great that the zoo sends $75,000 a year (a fraction of their net assets, which in 2022 were $103 million) to the Tsavo Trust, which does conservation work in Africa. But it’s neither necessary nor just to subject Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy to enormous physical and mental suffering in order to do it, nor is it educational to put this suffering on display.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo writes in its statement that they “provide specialized care for this special group of elephants in a myriad of ways.” Unfortunately, this care is always going to be insufficient when it doesn’t address the core issue as raised in our lawsuit and demonstrated through scientific evidence submitted by elephant experts: that these autonomous beings are imprisoned, they know they’re imprisoned, and there’s nothing the zoo can do, no improvement they can make, to change this fundamental fact. If the zoo actually understood and acknowledged the needs of elephants, the elephants wouldn’t be there.

Whether by court order or not, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo needs to do the right thing and release these elephants to a sanctuary, where elephants with traumatic histories heal and thrive physically and mentally because, for the first time in years, they have ample space to roam, socialize, and make choices about their lives. Not only is the utmost care given to the process of transporting elephants to sanctuaries, but these sanctuaries must meet stringent standards laid out by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo does these elephants and these sanctuaries a great disservice by suggesting GFAS-accredited sanctuaries provide anything less than the highest level of care and respect for these beings.

It’s also disturbing for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to claim, as they do throughout their statement, that Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy don’t need what free elephants need. They do. Whether the zoo is willing to give it to them is another matter. Regardless, we’re confident the law and justice are on our side and that the Colorado courts will recognize the elephants’ right to liberty and order their release to a sanctuary.

Learn more about Jambo, Kimba, LouLou, Lucky, and Missy on their client page

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