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Zoo Elephants Are Thriving, Claims Association of Zoos & Aquariums President

By Courtney Fern

Recently the show 1A on WAMU 88.5 – American University Radio hosted a conversation about the moral cost of keeping nonhuman animals in captivity with Emma Marris (author of the forthcoming Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World) and Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) President Dan Ashe. During it, Ashe and another guest, Brookfield Zoo Senior Vice President of Animal Programs Bill Ziegler, made several comments totally contrary to common sense and science.

One statement Ashe made early in the show is particularly ridiculous, which we see as an indication of just how desperate zoo leaders have become in their ongoing attempts to defend the indefensible: ‚ÄúThe idea that elephants are somehow suffering in AZA member facilities is wrong, and it‚Äôs informed by ancient history.‚ÄĚ He went on to say that ‚Äúelephants are thriving‚ÄĚ (!) in AZA zoos.

Perhaps Ashe was confusing the cutting-edge science about elephants that informs our legal arguments with the AZA’s arguments for imprisoning them in small, unnatural enclosures, which go against all we know about what members of this self-aware, autonomous species need to thrive. Acclaimed elephant experts and scientists have clearly demonstrated that elephants suffer in zoos, which are unable to meet their physical, behavioral, and psychological needs. Elephants are highly social animals who evolved to move and suffer greatly when they are confined to small spaces with few, if any, elephant companions.

During the program, Ziegler was asked his thoughts on elephant captivity at zoos, and the host mentioned our client Happy, who has been imprisoned at the Bronx Zoo for 44 years. Like Ashe, Ziegler failed to acknowledge the wealth of scientific evidence showing that elephants suffer in zoos, stating he was unaware of any scientific research that show that elephants are better off in sanctuaries. Ziegler‚Äôs comments illuminate the AZA‚Äôs distorted, archaic view of nonhuman animals as mere things, with him referring to a zoo‚Äôs animals as its ‚Äúcollection.‚ÄĚ

Sadly but unsurprisingly, many zoo representatives still claim to be experts in animal behavior while they continue to ignore what scientists and so many people already know: that elephants don’t belong in zoo exhibits, where they cannot exercise their autonomy and suffer deeply as a result. You can listen to the full conversation here.

To learn more about Happy and her court case, click here. To join the over one million people who’ve signed her petition, click here. To make a donation to help ensure the legal fight for elephant rights is as strong as it can be, now and until all elephants can live freely, click here. 

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