Last month the Auckland Council agreed to lend Auckland Zoo the money to import two juvenile elephants into my backyard. Not my backyard exactly, but close enough – into Western Springs, our backyard.
I was present at the Council meeting, and was kindly given five minutes to speak to the discussion. I underlined the calibre and credentials of the experts who had written to the Council, recommending that Burma be sent away to a sanctuary or open-air zoo, as the most humane and sensible option.
It was a veritable herd of prominent elephant behavioural scientists and conservationists from around the world, who are following what happens here with concern.
In its press release the Council has said the decision was made with animal welfare and conservation ‘paramount’. Obviously this is not the case, as the recommendations were disregarded [see the SAFE campaign page for more details and media coverage].
But the Councillors aren’t elephant experts themselves, so mostly they’re just relying on the information that’s put in front of them. What they actually voted on was the financial plan presented by the zoo, which gave them two scenarios: either bring in elephants and revenues go up, or have nothing in their place and revenues go down. How could any rates-conscious council argue against that?
Everyone loves elephants and it seems like a cold, hard thing to say ‘no’, you can’t have them. But it’s a cold, hard fact that Burma’s future is being decided by these financial decisions. The zoo needs a ‘flagship species’ that will attract the public, and they have chosen elephants as the drawcard. The lucky ones chosen to live the rest of their lives here with us will be the happy (or not so happy) mascots for the rest of their disappearing species, and bring in the revenue to keep the zoo afloat.
It’s widely recognised that elephants just don’t cope well in zoos. Attempts at good welfare in zoos largely depends on continual enrichment programs and efforts to replicate a natural environment, which for elephants can never be properly achieved. As such, they don’t thrive.
In 2006 Time Magazine reported on a survey of the world’s captive elephant population that showed that “once you lock up the giant, space-loving beasts, their health suffers, their median life span plummets, and they quit breeding.” Click here to read the article.
The UK RSPCA in 2010 called for the phase out of elephants in zoos, saying that “recent research has shown that they were suffering from severe welfare problems, which range from lameness and obesity to obsessive behaviour, and that it was inappropriate and cruel to keep them in confinement.”
As everyone knows, elephants are incredible animals [“Elephants resemble humans in a number of ways”] and we should be aiming at what’s really best for them, not just meeting the minimum standards the zoo community sets for itself. What is best for them as individuals, and as a species?
There is no consideration in Auckland Zoo’s plan of what is best for the conservation of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka, or in the world. What can we do in this faraway country to save a species that is mainly threatened with loss of habitat, and conflict with humans?
Moving a couple into my backyard is not the answer.
What of the conservation claims being made? The main point is that it will inspire the next generation of New Zealanders when they come round to visit and meet the animals in person, so they learn to care enough that when they grow up they’ll go out there and save the world.
Excuse my scepticism, but Greenpeace doesn’t imprison whales to help give people an emotional connection with them. Elephants have been sent to zoos for over a hundred years and it’s done them no good. When I was a kid I actually had a ride on an elephant at Wellington Zoo, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what turned me into an animal advocate.
The other point made by Auckland Zoo is that the elephants will raise money to support the real, underfunded conservation programmes run in their native countries. This is effectively ‘greenwash’ – spend a few million dollars on the upkeep of three elephants and then donate a few thousand to someone else’s conservation effort, and then we ourselves claim to be saving animals in the wild.
It all comes back to what’s best for the animals, including Burma. Yes, a move could be dramatic and possibly traumatic for her, however why cause that trauma for the two individuals who are being sent over here? They will be taken from their own home, put in a smaller space and limited to a tiny social grouping.
And starting this elephant programme will perpetuate an ongoing cycle over the next few decades. There wil be more transporting of these beautiful creatures around the world as new companions are needed, or with breeding are needed to be sent away, with all the associated dislocation, logistical problems and costs. And all for no real purpose.
In other parts of the world the zoo community are asking themselves the hard questions. For example Toronto Zoo made its own decision last month to say goodbye to elephants. Detroit Zoo let go of its elephants in 2006, saying it couldn’t properly meet their needs (click here to read about it). This did them no harm at all – this year it’s breaking attendance records.
The underlying question is, what relevance does the exhibiting of exotic species from around the globe have in this day and age? I don’t have an answer to that – all I know is, the answer is not moving elephants into my backyard.
Eliot Pryor, Campaign director ________________________________________________________________
The animals of the planet are in desperate peril … Without free animal life I believe we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. Alice Walker