Lisa Kane, JD, is the author of An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. Lisa practiced law for nearly three decades. She was a member of Association of Zoos and Aquariums from 2001-2007 working to improve conditions for elephants in zoos. She has traveled extensively in Africa visiting key elephant conservation programs. Lisa has observed elephant programs at twenty-one zoos throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia. Lisa co-founded and was co-director of an ad hoc inter-disciplinary group, the Coalition for Captive Elephant Well-Being. Lisa was awarded an Animals and Society Institute Fellowship at Michigan State University. She has been widely published. Lisa is Co-author and editor, An Elephant in the Room: The Science and Welfare of Elephants in Captivity, Tufts University Cummings’ School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for Animals and Public Policy (2009) linked below. Read Lisa Kane’s full CV.
The following bolded statements are the common claims by zoos, with Lisa Kane’s responses below each….
The gold standard of wildlife conservation is the captive breeding and reintroduction of an endangered species into the wild. Well known examples include the California condor and black-footed ferret.
AZA has never reintroduced an elephant to the wild. It claims no plan to ever do so.
Zoos claim to provide conservation education that inspires zoo visitors to care, learn, and act to help wildlife.
Studies at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and several British zoos show limited knowledge acquisition by visitors and no impact on behavior changes. Studies in Hamilton Zoo, New Zealand showed visitors wanted to see animals, not learn about them. (Kleiman, et al., Wild Mammals in Captivity 2010 p. 282)
No American zoo industry nor independently funded empirical research demonstrates that zoo visitors recognize or act on a conservation message zoos claim to impart.
US Zoo experts lamented in 2001 that the industry has produced no measurable educational impact on the public: although zoo industry studies “cited the potential for zoos to positively influence their visitors’ conservation knowledge, affect, attitude and behavior, these claims were not substantiated or validated by actual research” (Dierking, et al. 2001-2001, p vi)
Another study funded by AZA, “Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium,” reports that there was no statistically significant change in “overall knowledge.” (Falk, Rienhard, Vernon, Bronnenkant, et al., 2007, p. 10). Instead, the social scientists found that zoo visits “reinforced” and “supported” pre-existing attitude and values of guests.
Even more worrying, non-industry funded research suggested that zoo guests exposed to express conservation messages and instructed on specific, concrete steps to aid wildlife conservation reported three months later that they had not followed even one zoo suggestion. Smith, L. et al. 2008, “A Closer Examination of the Impact of Zoo Visits on Visitor Behavior, “ Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16: 544-562.
In the face of this dismal record, the zoo industry relies on results from a single push poll it paid for in 2004 to assert that zoo visitors “appreciate” elephants more after visiting them at zoos. “Appreciate” is a vague, non-scientific term, impossible to define or measure. It is not science.
Wildlife conservation includes developing and supporting sustainable captive “insurance populations.”
As The Seattle Times’ cogently demonstrated, AZA’s own studies and its elephants’ mortality and birth numbers support the inescapable conclusion that the zoo industry, including Woodland Park Zoo, is incapable of developing and sustaining a captive elephant “insurance population.”
Wildlife conservation means financing conservation where wildlife lives.
AZA conservation expenditure in 1999 showed a median expenditure of 0.3% of the zoos’ operating budget to wildlife conservation where the animals live. Apparently embarrassed by this disclosure, AZA had not updated these figures as of 2010, when Wild Mammals in Captivity (2010), the premier learned text of the industry which reported the data, was published.
Since 1998, the International Elephant Fund, AZA’s chief conservation partner through which zoo grants for elephant field research are funneled, awarded grants totaling $2.5M. IEF reported awarding $225,000 in grants for elephant conservation in the wild in for 2012.
As one of about 74 AZA zoos contributing to this fund, our Zoo’s share would, arguably, equal approximately $3,000 in 2012.
Woodland Park Zoo claims it has 1 million visitors last year. It follows that Woodland Park Zoo contributed money to conserve wild elephants and their habitats at a rate of approximately $.003 per visitor, per year through IEF.
In stark contrast, zoos spend lavishly on captive elephant exhibits and elephants they hold captive. For example, zoos announced elephant exhibit construction costs exceeding $300,000,000 between 2000 and 2005. That figure does not include the millions of aggregate industry dollars expended yearly to maintain elephants held in zoos.
Woodland Park Zoo denies possessing records showing how much it spends to maintain its elephants. Toronto Zoo, which houses three female elephants nearly the same ages as the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo, reports spending about $618,000 per year for their care. It seems fair to infer that our Zoo spends a sum similar to Toronto Zoo’s expenditure.
If money equals action and if actions speak louder than words, then it seems fair to say that conservation of wild elephants and their habitat is of small importance to the America zoo industry or its members, including Woodland Park Zoo.
Wildlife conservation is supported by zoo research on captive wildlife.
Woodland Park Zoo claims the zoo industry has conducted research on elephant communication, behavior, and reproduction “that could never have been gleaned from wild populations.”
Cynthia Moss, winner of a MacArthur Genius Award in 2001, would undoubtedly be astonished by this assertion. She has overseen a 35-year epidemiological study of the Amboseli elephant population in Kenya. Her published work addresses African elephants’ habitat use, population dynamics, ranging behavior, communication, cognition, social knowledge, reproductive strategies, fidelity and flexibility of social attachment, calf development and maternal rearing strategies, friends, relations and kinship, male social dynamics, longevity, competition, independence, and musth. (See, i.e., Moss, C., Croze, H., and Lee, P. The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. 2011 University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.)
Iain Douglas-Hamilton has overseen an equally valuable project, Save the Elephants, in Samburu, Kenya, for decades. He and his colleagues have authored numerous peer-reviewed articles addressing elephant social organization, the integrity of elephant natal herds in the face of resource scarcity, communication, ranging patterns, and the like.
Joyce Poole, Ph.D., has collected data on elephant communication, including vocal communication, posture and gesture, for decades. Her field research has been robustly published. Please see www.elephantvoices.org.
The zoo industry has contributed important insights into elephant reproductive physiology. This is not a surprise. The issue is of supreme importance to zoos since they believe it might be germane to understanding why captive elephants do not successfully reproduce as their counterparts in the wild do. This knowledge is of somewhat less importance to understanding elephants in the wild since they have successfully reproduced without human assistance for millennia.