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Will Dallas Zoo really let elephants be elephants?

On May 28th we were asked to talk to WFAA TV in Texas about the stereotypic behavior of Jenny, an elephant at the Dallas Zoo and, since we have written about icon her before (159.39 kB), we agreed.

In the course of the interview, part of which was aired the same day on WFAA TV, Joyce, mentioned being surprised by the Zoo's use of the expression "let elephants be elephants" in the context of their new 5-6 acre elephant exhibit. And that is where the controversy erupted.
This phrase is one that Joyce has used for years to refer to the kind of space elephants need to keep from becoming bored and frustrated in captivity: Space that allows elephants to form families and raise their young;
- to separate for hours and then use their sense of smell and long distance hearing to find one another again;
- space that allows elephants to forage, to browse and to graze, naturally;
- space that allows females to socialize with males, now and again;
- space that keeps them fully engaged.

(See Mind and Movement: Meeting the Interests of Elephants.)

So, when the Dallas Zoo co-opted this phrase for a 5-6 acre exhibit that will hold six elephants and doesn't have any natural vegetation, it seemed, to us, a misuse of "our" term. If the Dallas Zoo actually believes that this space will allow elephant to be elephants, then we respectfully suggest that they spend more time learning about the lives of wild elephants. We simply do not agree and felt it necessary to say so.

We understand that this is all about marketing - but AZA institutions are in the habit of providing the public with misinformation about elephants; zoos need to use sounder science and be more careful with their statements.

While we are disappointed that no zoo so far has used the multi-millions of dollars raised for an elephant exhibits that really would allow elephants to really be elephants, we are always happy to see conditions improved for individuals. And the new exhibit is certainly a great improvement for Jenny - and the other elephants who will share the space with her.

We continue to challenge the AZA to create landscapes rather than "exhibits" that will give elephants the real freedom to live their lives as elephants. It can be done.