Arizona zoo disputes animal rights activist claims that its zoo is 'one of the worst for elephants'

Officials with the Phoenix Zoo say they disagree with claims by an animal rights activist group that the zoo is one of the worst zoos in North America for elephants.

Here's what you should know about the group's claims.

Who's making this claim about the Phoenix Zoo?

The group In Defense of Animals made the claim on their website, in its annual Worst Zoo for Elephants in North America list.

What is the list about?

The website for In Defense of Animals show the organization has, since at least 2004, released a top 10 list for what they believe to be the worst zoos for elephants.

Overall, officials with the animal rights group say while most zoos that keep elephants captive deserve to be on the 10 Worst Zoos list, they consider on a number of factors to narrow down the list, including:

  • Health problems
  • Lack of space
  • Unsuitable enclosures
  • Cold climates
  • Unhealthy elephant behaviors
  • Social issues between elephants
  • Solitary elephants
  • Reckless breeding
  • Premature deaths
  • Brutal management procedures
  • Inappropriate social challenges, ranging from "incompatibility between elephants to naturally social elephants being kept in crushing solitary confinement."

What about the 2021 list? What does it focus on?

The 2021 list, according to the group's website, focuses on zoos that are considered to be the best by industry standards.

"Accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), and the Canadian equivalent (CAZA), is the gold standard for zoos. Yet this gold standard overwhelmingly fails to provide ‘the highest quality of elephant management and care’ claimed by the AZA. Instead of ‘excellent overall elephant well being,’ our review uncovers a catalog of elephant suffering and even markers of captivity-caused brain damage at AZA and CAZA institutions," read a portion of the website.

What zoos are on the 2021 list?

Arizona's Phoenix Zoo is on the list for the first time in 2021, coming in at number 4.

The list includes:

  1. Edmonton Valley Zoo, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  2. ABQ BioPark in Albuquerque, N.M.
  3. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in Cincinnati, Ohio
  4. Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz.
  5. Bronx Zoo in The Bronx, New York, N.Y.
  6. Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma City, Okla.
  7. Toledo Zoo & Aquarium in Toledo, Ohio
  8. Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif.
  9. Fresno Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif.
  10. Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, La.

Some of the zoos on the 2021 list have been featured multiple times, the activist group noted, including Bronx Zoo, Oklahoma City Zoo, Toledo Zoo & Aquarium, and Los Angeles Zoo.

Why are the other zoos on the list?

Officials gave a variety of reasons for including the zoos on the list.

Bronx Zoo

In the case of Bronx Zoo, the group focused on the story of an elephant named Happy.

Happy, the group says, was brought to the Bronx Zoo along with another elephant named Grumpy in 1973 from Thailand. The group claims Happy witnessed an attack that led to Grumpy being euthanized in 2002, and that since the deadly attack, Happy was separated from two other elephants for safety reasons.

The group claims the zoo brought in another elephant, named Sammie to be with Happy, but Sammie was euthanized in 2005 due to a kidney failure.

"The deaths of her friends and her subsequent loneliness have caused Happy to suffer greatly," officials with the group wrote.

Los Angeles Zoo

In the case of Los Angeles Zoo, officials with the activist group say while the zoo expanded its elephant habitat in 2010, it made little difference, claiming that only about three acres of land in its 6.5-acre Elephants of Asia exhibit is accessible to the elephants. The group also claims elephants in the zoo have inadequate access to shade.

In addition, members of the activist group claim some of Los Angeles Zoo's elephants were subjected to what they claim is a highly invasive procedure of semen collection, in an effort to artificially inseminate females in other zoos.

What are officials with Bronx Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo saying in response?

Bronx Zoo

We have reached out to an official with the Bronx Zoo, who declined to comment.

Los Angeles Zoo

Officials with the Los Angeles Zoo have issued a statement, which reads:

"AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are often the only way that people can connect with wildlife and nature firsthand.

In Los Angeles, the only place our guests may ever see an Asian elephant is likely at their L.A. Zoo, where they can create a lasting connection to this endangered species and support our efforts to protect Asian elephants in the wild. As an AZA-accredited institution, the Los Angeles Zoo’s elephant care program continues to provide excellent care and welfare to all four Asian elephants living here.

Zoos are constantly working and evolving to better the lives of animals through continuous and various improvements. This requires active, ongoing research into the natural history of the animals as well as observational research to continually improve animal husbandry.

It is important to note that the L.A. Zoo's Asian elephants have the opportunity to share the same physical space; these integrations have given all four of our Asian elephant ambassadors the opportunity to grow socially, form bonds with one another, and allow for a fuller and richer life experience.

We remain confident in the expertise, care, and welfare our elephant team continues to provide. The L.A. Zoo’s goal and plan are always to further improve the lives of the animals in our care."

Why is Phoenix Zoo on the list?

Officials with the activist group focused on Indu, Phoenix Zoo's lone Asian elephant, in its 2021 list.

The 56-year-old elephant has lived in the two-acre enclosure at Phoenix Zoo for more than 20 years. During those 20 years, officials with the activist group have never mentioned any issues with the zoo, until now.

"This elephant, without companionship and without space to roam, is pretty stressed and bored," said Brittany Michelson with In Defense of Animals.

Michelson said their biggest concern is that Indu is alone since the death of Sheena, the zoo's 50-year-old elephant, in November 2021. Michelson said their investigators found the exhibit, which was expanded in 2019, was too small for Indu.

"Does not appear to have enough deep shade, and there’s only a small water trough in the area where the elephant resides rather than a pool," said Michelson.

Officials with the activist group say Indu needs to be sent to a sanctuary.

What are officials with Phoenix Zoo saying in response?

Officials with the Phoenix Zoo completely disagrees with claims made by officials with the activist group, and say the elephant they have at the zoo is happy, has plenty of space, and is family.

"She is happy. We are her herd," said Heather Wright with the Phoenix Zoo.

Wright also talked about the issue of access to water, as mentioned by Michelson.

"We do have a pool. We have three separate exhibits that she does have access to throughout the week," said Wright, adding that a rhinoceros shares the pool, depending on the day, which is why the group might be confused.

Wright also said the group never reached out, and the zoo would have liked to have told them more about how they care for Indu.

"It’s very hurtful because we do everything we can," said Wright. "We go above and beyond every day to keep her as happy and as healthy as we can. She comes in the morning and squeaks hello and talks to us. She’s happy here, and it’s hard reading that."

As for sanctuaries, Wright said while sanctuaries can be great, it is not right for all animals, and that taking Indu away from Phoenix Zoo would be stripping her from her family and all she has known for decades.

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