Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The "Elephant" in the room

The Los Angeles Times published a letter that I submitted in support of the Los Angeles Zoo’s new elephant exhibit, Pachyderm Forest (please click here to read it). The construction of this new habitat has been put on hold due to a small group of animal activists who are trying to end construction permanently and send Billy (Asian elephant) to a sanctuary. After observing Billy last week, I believe that Pachyderm Forest will serve as a wonderful home for him and elephants that will reside there in the future. This particular situation in LA is an example of a much bigger issue.

I, along with most of zoo professionals, conservationists, and humane society organizations, agree mostly with the “animal welfare” philosophy that it is morally acceptable for animals to be a food source, used in humane research, and in entertainment, so long as unnecessary suffering is avoided. On the other hand, Animal rights organizations, such at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and IDA (In Defense of Animals), believe that animals should receive the same consideration as humans and be regarded as legal persons and members of the moral community. They believe that animals should not be used in anyway for food, clothing, research subjects, or entertainment. Therefore, animal rights activists would like nothing more than to eliminate zoos altogether. In my opinion, many members of animal rights groups join with the best of intentions; they truly love animals and really want to help, but don’t fully understand the extent of the groups’ beliefs.

For three decades, I have worked to promote wildlife conservation, educate the public, and advocate for animals all over the world. I have witnessed a myriad of animals living in zoos, sanctuaries and in the wild. The reality is that the "wild" has changed, and it isn't as glamorous as some would make it sound. The majority of the "wild" areas left on Earth are actually protected, such as national parks and sanctuaries that are secured by armed guards. As wild spaces continue to disappear, zoos have a more important role than ever before.

I have been fortunate to visit the “wild” many times throughout my career. However, 99 percent of the general public will never have the opportunity to experience animals in the wild. Today zoos provide the public with the opportunity to see up-close the magnificent creatures we share the planet with – to learn about their lives, native habitats, and how our earth’s animals, people, and the environment are interdependent. Of course, we hope that people have a fun time at the zoo, but the goal is that they leave knowing more about wildlife conservation while also being inspired to learn more about animals and conservation issues. As the wild continues to shrink, zoos also play an integral role in the survival of many species by supporting conservation programs all around the world and conducting their own research.

1. My
Los Angeles Times letter
2. Video in support of the
Los Angeles Zoo
3. The positive side of Zoos
4. Columbus Zoo conservation programs
5. Opposing Views discussion about zoos
6. Columbus Dispatch
article about the Columbus Zoo’s elephant program
7. Recently PETA sent a
press release to its members about the Columbus Zoo’s elephant program. Below is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s response to the press release.

Dear concerned citizen:

The Columbus Zoo, like several other AZA-accredited institutions on North America, uses several different methods of elephant handling, including protected contact, modified protected contact, and free contact. In fact, the Columbus Zoo has been in the forefront of developing additional methods of elephant handling, using a modified protected contact approach to manage “Coco”, an adult male Asian elephant, since 1979. All four of the Asian elephants owned and managed by the Columbus Zoo are managed in at least two of the three management styles, and one elephant, Phoebe, can be managed in all three styles. All three styles of management use positive reinforcement and operant conditioning. The appropriate style of management for an elephant at Columbus is individually tailored to that animal’s particular behavioral and physiological needs, and is designed to provide the keepers with the techniques they need to provide the best care possible for each elephant, while keeping the handlers safe at the same time.

The guide, also known as an ankus and presumably what PETA is referring to as a “bullhook”, is an important component of these management systems at Columbus, as is positive reinforcement. All elephant handlers at Columbus are taught the proper way to use an ankus. The guide serves as an extension of the handler’s body; its primary function, regardless of the handling style in use, is to shape and cue the behaviors that enable handlers to provide the proper level of care for the elephants in their charge. The value of the humane use of a guide in elephant training and management has been recognized by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Veterinary Medical Association, The Elephant Manager’s Association, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The proper use of a guide does not cause severe pain or trauma, nor does it result in lacerations, puncture wounds or abscesses. As a matter of fact, the tips of the guide are dull and rounded—use of the guide at Columbus has never resulted in an injury to any of our elephants. What the proper use of the guide does result in, when used as part of a well designed and implemented elephant management program, is elephants that are both healthy and happy.

The Columbus Zoo is committed to Elephant Conservation with a 20-year history of supporting wildlife conservation through our Conservation Grants program. Over the past 5 years, the Zoo has provided $3.8 million in support for field projects and conservation organizations in more than 40 countries. Several elephant projects in Africa and Asia have received support- recent examples include:

The Elephant Research Project (ERP), Botswana- Dr. Kate Evans
Satellite-tracking and social behavior of the Bornean elephant in Kinabatangan, Malaysia- Dr. Benoit Goossens
Getting Along with Elephants, South Asia- Sally Walker (Zoo Outreach Organization)
School awareness program for elephants, Sri Lanka
Survey of forest elephant populations, Democratic Republic of Congo
Study of forest elephants in Central Africa- Dr. Stephen Blake; Dr. Fiona Maisels
Tarangire Elephant Project, Tanzania- Dr. Charles Foley

Since 1990, the Zoo has hosted a Conservation Lecture Series. Speakers include award-winning authors and internationally recognized scientists and conservationists. The lecture series is an important opportunity for the Zoo to offer public education programs addressing timely conservation issues around the globe. Visitors to the Zoo also enjoy learning about elephant conservation and contribute directly to field projects at the Zoo’s Elephant Conservation Station inside the Pachyderm exhibit.

Lastly, I have attached a recent article from the Columbus Dispatch which highlights the many fine qualities of our program.


Mr. Jeff Swanagan
Executive Director
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
9990 Riverside Dr.
Powell, OH 43065

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