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An ill-fitting new home for National Zoo's elephants

On 3rd September Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington DC is opening Elephant Trails (see video below). The zoo calls the elephants' new home "innovative" and "groundbreaking". From our perspective it shows very little understanding of the real interests and needs of elephants. Our friend and colleague, Peter Stroud, has written an Op-Ed for Washington Post, which was published today.

We have stolen the title to this page from Peter's excellent piece - "ill-fitting" describes the new Elephant Trails perfectly. It is disturbing that with $50 million of tax payers money spent on this new exhibit the Smithsonian's National Zoo was not able to do better. In memory of Toni (photo), and with all that could have been done for the National Zoo's elephants at Front Royal or at one of the elephant sanctuaries, we hoped for much more.

If we go back five and a half years:
In early January 2005 we visited National Zoo, partly to see 40-year-old, Toni, who we had been told was in very bad condition. We watched Toni for a few hours from outside her barren enclosure - it was obvious that she was in pain with severe arthritis. Afterward, we met with National Zoo Director, John Berry, hoping that we could persuade him to send Toni to an elephant sanctuary, where she would have more space and freedom. We told him straight out that we predicted that Toni would die if they didn't do something urgently to improve her situation. Berry told us that Toni was fine, and that she had looked like that for decades.

On 11th January 2005 we sent a letter to the Zoo (374.34 kB), arguing for what we believed would be the best for Toni and the Zoo; we never received an answer. On 25th January, three weeks after our visit, Toni was euthanized. Toni is a grim example of what a life in captivity leads to. Her death triggered this article in the Washington Post.

The National Zoo is calling Elephant Trails "the cornerstone of our campaign to save Asian elephants." We are dumbfounded. How is keeping a few elephants in an inadequate space in North America "saving the Asian elephant"? To state that this new enclosure is the Zoo's "cornerstone" to save Asian elephants undermines the good science and education efforts that the Smithsonian Institution is doing for elephants. And that is a pity.