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Captive Elephant Management - Concepts in The Care and Welfare of Captive Elephants

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Captive elephant management is a highly controversial issue, currently reaching a critical juncture in Europe and the U.S.A. Elephants are a notoriously difficult species to maintain in zoos, and this, coupled with several recent high profile cases in the U.K and abroad, have brought to light several areas of concern regarding the welfare of zoo elephants. Issues in the press have largely focused on elephant training. As reviewed in Chapter 6, this traditionally involves the use of physical punishment, and the more extreme methods used have been brought to the fore by several recent legal cases.

For example, the use of electric prods during elephant training at Blackpool Zoo was reported by the Performing Animal Welfare Society. Harsh methods were also witnessed during training of the famous ‘Tuli elephants’ in South Africa, prior to their export to zoos and circuses in Germany, Switzerland, China and their use in elephant-back safaris. These and similar cases alleging elephant abuse, coupled with the prevalence of elephant handler injury and deaths have led to elephant handling methods being called into question. This attention has also highlighted other areas of concern relating to the keeping conditions of zoo elephants, and several animal welfare groups have recently made elephant projects a priority, some campaigning for the banning of zoo elephants altogether. All this attention from animal activists, the public and the press has put a great deal of pressure on zoos to alter their practices. Although some zoo authorities have recently issued standards relating to the management and care of zoo elephants (see the following section), these often do not deal directly with the welfare of elephants. Instead, the emphasis is on husbandry, and recommendations are largely constrained by what is feasible within the existing zoo setting.

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The reasoning behind many of the minimum standards set is less than clear. It appears that what is perceived to be best and worse practice at the time is used to modify current practice, rather than addressing issues from first principles. In general, much of the necessary data needed to make really informed decisions to improve zoo elephant welfare are lacking. As put by Deborah Olson, the director of the International Elephant Foundation: “Unfortunately, too often we make statements and policy decisions based on little more than personal opinion – what we think it should be. How big should an elephant stall be? How many elephants should be maintained together? How much exercise should an elephant have? How effective is enrichment and what types of enrichment are effective? When should an elephant be weaned? The list goes on and on.

The answers based on scientific study are “We don’t know.”The answers we give to these questions currently are founded on personal opinions, extrapolated from other animals, and in some cases past experience. Although past experience is certainly a valid consideration, it can be misconstrued or have extenuating circumstances, confounding issues, exceptions, and inconsistencies”.

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