In Defense of Animals criticizes movement of elephants, captive breeding
An animal activist group that publishes an annual list of the “Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants” ranked San Diego Zoo Global — parent organization for the zoo and the Safari Park — ninth this year.
San Diego was included because of “irresponsible breeding, severing bonds and treating elephants like expendable assets,” according to In Defense of Animals, a San Rafael organization that has been compiling the list since 2004 and has long been opposed to elephants being kept in zoos. This is the second time San Diego has been included.
“We do the list every year to draw attention to the fact that elephants suffer in captivity,” said Laura Bridgeman, director of the group’s elephant campaign. “No amount of space, financial investment or enrichment in public display facilities can completely eliminate the physical and psychological harm that captivity perpetuates for elephants.”
San Diego Zoo Global officials did not respond to multiple requests by phone and email for their reaction to the list, which was released Thursday. They have two Asian elephants and one African elephant at the zoo, and nine African bush elephants at the Safari Park.
On its website, Zoo Global called the pachyderms at the Safari Park “one of the most genetically valuable African elephant herds in North America” and said its success caring for them earned a conservation award in 2014 from the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums. “We can apply the knowledge we gain studying the elephants at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park to help sustain elephants in their native environments.” .
The “worst” list was topped by the Pittsburgh Zoo, followed by facilities in Miami; the Bronx, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Louisville, Ky.; Virginia; Alberta, Canada; Salt Lake City; San Diego; and Syracuse, N.Y.
Bridgeman said all zoos in the United States and Canada that display elephants are evaluated through in-person visits, reviews of government and veterinary reports, and consultations with elephant experts. A variety of factors are considered, including elephant health trends, unnatural behaviors, lack of space and management practices. Priority is given to “notable events” that occurred during the previous year, she said.
San Diego was cited for breaking up a “brotherhood” of four male elephants, all born at the Safari Park nine or 10 years ago, and sending them to other zoos in 2019. Two went to the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas, and two went to the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama, the activist group said. Another elephant, born in Africa more than a decade ago, was transferred to Zoo Atlanta.
“Elephants depend strongly on their social structures, and severing the decade-long bonds of these young elephants has likely caused them trauma,” said Fleur Dawes, communications director for In Defense of Animals.
Zoos move elephants for various reasons, including space constraints and breeding to improve genetic diversity and population sustainability.
San Diego was also criticized for its breeding practices, which have led to numerous calves being born at the Safari Park’s six-acre elephant exhibit in the last 15 years. “San Diego Zoo Global lacks adequate space and social structures to house more elephants,” In Defense of Animals said. “It should stop breeding elephants and stop pretending elephants don’t notice or care when their companionships are broken apart.”
In Defense of Animals, started in 1983, believes its annual list and other campaigns have played a role in more than 30 U.S. zoos deciding to close their elephant exhibits in recent decades.
Zoos remain popular with the public, drawing more than 183 million visitors annually — more than the combined attendance at professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey games in the U.S., according to industry statistics. Elephants have historically been a major attraction. The San Diego Zoo first exhibited them in 1923.
Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.