Jewish World Review April 21, 2006/ 23 Nissan, 5766

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

To Zoo or Not to Zoo |

The Los Angeles City Council voted thirteen to two in favor of a new $39 million dollar elephant exhibit for the Los Angeles Zoo last Wednesday. A majority of the project's funding would come from city bonds and a corporation that pays for capital projects. The exhibit calls for a variety of natural walking surfaces (as opposed to concrete) and would also have a lush forest and bathing water holes.

The new area would increase the animal's space from the current half-acre to 31/2 acres. Some animal rights advocates have been against the proposal arguing that the new habitat still wouldn't be large enough and would prefer to have the elephant exhibit closed entirely. This follows in the wake of the death of a 39-year-old African elephant named Tara in 2004. As of now, the zoo has three elephants remaining and a report filed last year states that the animals are well-tended but need more space.

Los Angeles is only one of many city zoos where the elephant exhits are under fire for being much too small. In Chicago, where three Lincoln Park Zoo elephants have died since 2004, the city council is considering an ordinance that would demand 10 acres for elephant exhibits. The Detroit Zoo has closed its elephant exhibit altogether because of the harsh Michigan winters.

The San Francisco and Detroit zoos closed their exhibits last year, saying they were too small. Both sent their last elephants to a 115-acre private sanctuary outside Sacramento. In February, the Bronx Zoo announced it would phase out its elephant program. The Santa Barbara Zoo spent $2.5 million expanding its elephant yard in 2004 but has decided not to take any more elephants after the current two die.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the San Diego Zoo's next major construction project will be an elephant enclosure of more than 2 acres — a big improvement from the decades-old exhibit measuring about a third of an acre — but not a big enough improvement for many animal advocate groups. And the growing national debate over what constitutes enough room for the largest land mammal on earth continues on in city council chambers across the country.

Just how much room does an elephant herd, albeit a small herd; need in order to be considered "humane"? An acre? Two or three? Five acres? Ten? One California lawmaker has introduced legislation that would force zoos to give elephants at least 5 acres. Many zoos just don't have that kind of room, let alone the money to fund an expansion program of that size. And there are many animal rights activists who will never feel comfortable with zoo containment at any size.

While some zoos have closed their elephant exhibits or have announced plans to shut them down eventually because they are too small, the San Diego Zoo continues to move in the other direction, as are about 40 other zoos that also plan to expand or build new elephant exhibits in the next five years, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. No doubt this debate will go on for a long time to come.

Many zoo officials think the "elephant industry" is heading toward breeding herds and sanctuaries such as The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

There are basically two major elephant sanctuaries in the nation -- a 100-acre elephant range in California that is part of a preserve with about 2,600 captive animals, and a 2,700-acre facility in Tennessee. And wouldn't you know it; the California facility even has a massive hot tub for the elephants.

Both sanctuaries are nonprofit organizations that take in abused and "surplus" animals, but have not been embraced by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, in part because the sanctuary leaders have been quite critical of AZA guidelines and practices.

I know there are good arguments to be made on each side of the debate on whether to keep the elephant exhibits at major city zoos, just as I am sure that there are good-hearted, well-intentioned people on both sides. The problem I have with this thing is purely personal and very simple — I have never enjoyed zoos. Never. Not even as a kid.

My parents took me to the zoo and I certainly enjoyed the outing. I loved being out with Mom and Dad, having lunch out, and spending time away from home always seemed like a little vacation. But all in all, I would have rather gone to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm, or the kiddie park (for readers under the age of forty-five, a "kiddie park" was like a little neighborhood amusement park with lots of rides geared to small children. Sort of like a carnival).

Although I did feed the animals (you were encouraged to in those days) and enjoyed it to some degree, I never really found it all that wonderful to spend an entire afternoon watching animals in cages. I should hasten to add, the animals never seemed to be all that thrilled with me watching them, either.

I don't know why but I never liked performing animal acts in circuses or on television either. All those supposed funny monkey acts and dog acts never made me laugh. And those stupid dog movies where they dress them up as people I really can't stand. I'm sure many kids loved it — for whatever reason, I didn't. So as far as I'm concerned, they can close all the zoos down in the world and I wouldn't care. I have zero nostalgia for zoos. But like I said, that's my own personal take on it.

For those who want to know more about the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, their mission statement is as follows:

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, founded in 1995, is the nation's largest natural habitat refuge developed specifically for endangered African and Asian elephants. It operates on 2,700 acres in Hohenwald, Tennessee — 85 miles southwest of Nashville. The Elephant Sanctuary exists for two reasons: To provide a haven for old, sick or needy elephants in a setting of green pastures, old-growth forests, spring-fed ponds and a heated barn for cold winter nights. To provide education about the crisis facing these social, sensitive, passionately intense, playful, complex, exceedingly intelligent and endangered creatures.

For further information contact them at or write them at: The Elephant Sanctuary, P.O. Box 393, Hohenwald, TN 38462

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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