Practical Issues > Animals for Entertainment > Zoos

Elephants start dying when the gates close
By: JOHN VAN DOORN - Commentary

On the face of things, when three elephants that have 30 years of history with each other die in a short period of time, for no apparent reason except perhaps the daily and unnatural stress of lifelong captivity, detectives should come on the run. What happened here?

Elephants are not delicate little creatures that you raise with eye droppers and milk. They're tough and strong and durable, and they are capable of eating thatched huts. They can live a long time; 70 years is not unusual ---- in the wild.

Out in the freedom of the East African veldt, it is the dopiest of predators that dares attack an elephant. It happens, but that predator pays dearly for his ambition. Not even lions, fiercest of great beasts, will try to fell an elephant. They give them the right of way.

Yet huge and powerful as elephants are, stately beings that amble along in their charcoal gray uniforms (it is no accident that they are the designated animal of the Republican Party), three have died in Chicago.

All three were "on loan" from the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The last of the three, Wankie, who was 36, died about a week ago. She was preceded by Tatima, 35, and Peaches, 55. What is going on in San Diego that three such stalwarts have died on the road?

What probably killed them was that they were on the road at all. Although in captivity, creatures surely must start dying the moment the door clangs shut. Various animal-rights groups charged, when Peaches died in February, that San Diego dumped the three elephants in Chicago to make way for three younger elephants it was importing ---- elder abuse, for sure.

(For a long time after traveling and working throughout the African continent ---- and seeing the glories of 10,000 animals in the wild, among them herds of elephants shuffling through jungle and plain in perfect serenity, the newborn dancing in and out of the legs of the adults with no fear --- Observer could not go near a zoo without getting sick.)

The elephant record in San Diego, by the statistics that advocates provide, is not good. Florence Lambert, founder and director of a group called Elephant Alliance, wrote in February, "Of the 16 African elephants that have been held in captivity by the San Diego Zoological Society since 1961, nine have died (the average age being 18.2 years). In the wild, elephants live to be 60 to 70 years old."

It made no sense whatever to send African ---- African! ---- elephants to one of the nation's coldest cities. Lambert noted that when Peaches died in February, "the temperature was 8 degrees below zero, too cold for an elephant who spent her life in San Diego County."

With the death last week of Wankie, Lambert told staff writer Andrea Moss of the North County Times how she felt about the San Diego zookeepers: "They're obviously doing something wrong in the way they care for their elephants."

Her group wants the society's executive director, Doug Myers, to resign. It also wants an independent investigation. The society's responses, to date, have had a defensive ring, and they have not satisfied animal-rights advocates.

A necropsy (that's an autopsy for animals) is being performed on Wankie. At least three investigations have begun, representatives told writer Moss. They include probes by the Zoological Society, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

No matter what they come up with, it will not cause them or the nation to head in the most humane direction. You may count on this: They won't say that captivity itself is cruel, terrible and ought to be done away with. They will not take the view that no elephant and no other animal in the world should be torn from habitat, boxed in, caged in, fenced in or otherwise held forcibly. It is unnatural.

Contact staff writer John Van Doorn at (760) 739-6647 or

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