Practical Issues > Animals Used for Entertainment > Zoos - Index

Zoo elephants have no educational value, expert says
August 26, 2005

Zoo elephants aren't educational -- they're entertainment for bored people, an animal expert testified before a City Council committee Thursday.

Furthermore, children could learn more from watching a TV documentary than "two lonely female [zoo elephants] standing in a tiny area,'' said Joyce Poole, who has studied elephants in Africa for 30 years, including as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Looking at elephants in zoos has little if any value because the animals don't behave as they do in the wild, said Poole. That's because they're often "neurotic'' and overweight, she said.

"Those creatures may look like elephants, but they certainly aren't acting like elephants,'' said Poole. "Basically they are there for our entertainment, [something] to do with our kids on a Saturday."

Poole spoke before a City Council committee considering an ordinance that would restrict the use of elephants in circuses and would essentially prohibit the animals in Chicago zoos.

Representatives from Lincoln Park Zoo and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus watched the hearing but did not testify on the ordinance sponsored by Ald. Mary Ann Smith (48th).

Poole was invited by Smith to speak; her appearance was publicized by animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The alderman said she plans to host zoo and circus officials at a later date.

The packed committee room at City Hall included dozens of animal rights activists, some wearing shirts bearing the names of three elephants who died at Lincoln Park Zoo between October 2004 and May 2005.

Those deaths, as well as a series of other animal fatalities, helped launch the proposed ordinance, which includes a space requirement that would essentially require the zoo to devote its entire property to elephants.

Thursday's hearing included recorded elephant noises, which sounded like a heavy chair being dragged across a wood floor, and a slide presentation about how elephants live in the wild in Africa.

Touted by animal-rights activists as "the Jane Goodall of elephants'' -- a reference to the renowned ape expert -- Poole told the committee that zoo elephants commonly exhibit psychologically disturbed behavior such as swaying back and forth and suffer foot problems from lack of exercise. She disdainfully wielded a pointed bull hook often used to control circus elephants -- a device which would be prohibited in Chicago under Smith's proposal.

They need space, Poole says

Elephants need more space than most zoos can provide and are social animals whose lives are disrupted by premature separation from their mothers, Poole said.

Lincoln Park Zoo currently has no elephants but has not ruled out bringing some back in the future. After the hearing, the zoo's vice president for conservation and science, Steven Thompson, called Poole "obviously well-versed in wild elephants" but questioned whether she knew much about zoo elephants and how they are cared for. Lincoln Park officials have begun studies to determine the best practices for zoo elephants.

Thompson disputed Poole's charge that zoo elephants provide no educational value and cited a poll commissioned by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in which 95 percent of respondents said that seeing elephants and rhinos in zoos "helps people appreciate them more."

Ald. Joseph A. Moore (49th) seemed stunned by Poole's assertion that zoo elephants provide no educational value.

"I think there is [a] calculable benefit to exposing people to these wonderful creatures. Yes, they're not in their natural habitat, but seeing something live with your own eyes is a lot different than seeing it on television,'' said Moore.

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