Big Problem for Zoos

This has been the year of the elephant, at least for animal rights activists. On Sunday, Tinkerbelle was trucked from the San Francisco Zoo to a sanctuary in the Sierra foothills after a public outcry that the city’s tiny exhibit space didn’t offer the 8,000-pound Asian pachyderm room to roam. This came just two weeks after the Los Angeles Zoo reclaimed Ruby, a 43-year-old African elephant who had been transferred to the Knoxville Zoo last year. Her behavior in Tennessee -- listless and uncharacteristically aggressive -- satisfied the predictions of critics who had said she would miss her L.A. companions and fail to adjust to the move.

In Detroit, the outcome has been less happy so far for Winky and Wanda, two aging and arthritic elephants. Their zoo’s director has sought for months to transfer them to a retirement sanctuary in the Sunbelt, only to run into opposition from a national association of zoo directors worried about setting a precedent for removing big animals from zoos.

All of these elephant tales are pieces of an effort to find a balance between what’s best for zoo animals and what’s best for the exhibitors -- and zoo visitors.

If public outcry continues to pressure zoos to move animals to sanctuaries on the assumption that the beasts are unhappy, or because their exhibition space is too small, it could force zoos to spend untold millions to upgrade. And that’s not just for elephants; rhinos could use more room than they’re given in most American zoos. Or lions. Or just about any other animal.


Many zoos may be forced to close as a result, or may simply lose many of their best exhibits. Animal rights activists might call this a good thing, but there are benefits to public exhibition of elephants and other large exotics. In the wild, elephants are in danger of extinction because they are hunted for ivory, and zoos serve an educational purpose that helps spur support for preservation.

We’re glad Ruby got to pack her trunk and come home, and hope Winky and Wanda get some relief for their aching joints. But that’s not an endorsement of the elimination of zoos as we know them. Giving kids a chance to see elephants matters too.