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Captive Elephant Management: Interview with Knoxville Zoo’s Curator of Elephants

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As I plan for my trip to India to work with South Asia’s largest animal welfare and conservation organization, I realize that the one area that is the most removed from my field of expertise is elephant management and the captive breeding of elephants for conservation purposes.

Sure I have been around Asian and African elephants in zoological settings, but because elephants are so unique in regard to how they are handled, it takes more than just cursory exposure to work with them adequately.  Hence, elephant managers often work solely with elephants or with elephants and perhaps a few other related or unrelated taxa and have usually acquired years of experience working with these amazing animals.

In recent years, the management of elephants has come under much scrutiny because zoos and sanctuaries offer different environments for these sentient beings, which happen to be the largest terrestrial animals on Earth.  Although zoos have standardized programs for managing elephants through free contact or more recently protected contact management, I must say that no two zoo elephant programs are the same and so it would be unwise and unfair for me to categorically dismiss the benefits of either type of management facility or environment, meaning sanctuary or zoo.

I will say that some concern regarding the current welfare of elephants or other animals in zoo conservation centers is quite unfounded. I’ve been reluctant to write about elephant management because such controversy persists over how to best care for these vanishing giants. Although animal keepers continue to work for relatively low wages as they have for decades, their education, degree of knowledge and empathy for the welfare of their charges have never been greater.  They certainly don’t do it for the money, but rather their passion for working with wildlife. And I should add that elephant keepers, in particular, are extremely sensitive to public perception. So among all wildlife husbandry professionals they may be the most mindful of how zoo visitors perceive conditioning and training methods used to manage elephants.  I will also add that whether an organization permits free or protected contact training of elephants, operant conditioning through positive reinforcement can still serve as the basis for behavioral training.  But again, I’m not the expert when it comes to elephants. I asked my colleague, Jim Naelitz, the Curator of Elephants at the Knoxville Zoo to weigh in on the topic and answer some questions.

Interview:

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Jordan: I believe sanctuaries and zoos both offer certain benefits and that neither probably offers the perfect environment for any species. They offer the best conditions under the circumstances. Zoos do offer two things that not all sanctuaries provide. First, they offer that irreplaceable experience for a child to feel that moment of exhilaration upon meeting a living and breathing wild animal—something that a mounted specimen in a museum cannot provide.  They also contribute to conservation breeding programs for vanishing species along with research programs that aide in the development of improved husbandry and healthcare as well as the better management of free-ranging populations. 

Although there is controversy over space for elephants in zoos, it would be unfair to say that space is the critical factor in providing elephants with the kind of “welfare” we deem appropriate.  I say this because I have worked with similarly intelligent and sentient animal species at very spacious sanctuaries, where stereotypic behaviors still manifested in animals that came right out of the wild in need of rescue–orphaned animals. So what I’m getting at, albeit based on anecdotal evidence is it seems people forget about how dynamic an environment can be made to meet the behavioral needs of captive animals through enrichment and conditioning programs. Can you talk about this with regard to elephants?

Jim: Your comment about smaller spaces being capable of becoming dynamic and capable of providing behavioral needs for all animals is spot on.  Even in the wild animals only tend to move as far as their nutritional requirements demand.  Elephants in particular may travel several miles per day during the dry season to find food or water, however, those same elephants may travel less than a mile during the wet season when food and water is plentiful.  If you ask anybody who works with animals they will always say they want more room for their charges.  The truth of the matter is: the amount of space is not as important as the usability of that space.  When zoos are designing new elephant habitats or merely updating existing habitats the needs of the animals is always the driving factor.  Our elephants have access to mud wallows, pools, and/or large sand piles at all times.  We, like many other facilities, have several winch systems installed throughout the habitats that allow us to hang enrichment items and hay sources.  All of these items allow the elephants to exhibit natural behaviors and can be modified to require them to problem solve.  Examples of this can include: burying food items in the sand piles that requires the elephants to dig the items up; by altering the height of hay sources the animals may have to think of ways to get to the hay.  There are a few zoos that have gone as far as building exercise trails outside the regular habitats that allow them to walk the elephants longer distances with fewer distractions.  One big issue that exists, with facilities that boast massive areas for the elephants, is the failure to take their diets into account.  The elephant’s diet must be matched to their exercise regiment as well as to the amount of natural food available to them in their habitats.  If the elephants are fed their regular diet in a smaller habitat and exercised properly there shouldn’t be a weight problem.  If the same elephants are fed their regular diet and given access to several hundred acres of trees and grasses they will eat more and exercise less thus becoming obese.  Another factor that comes into play, as far as, providing enrichment items and handler interaction is the number of elephants at the facility.  Places that have a large number of elephants can allow the other “herd mates” to enrich each other.  Another option is mixed species habitats.  The only facility, in the US, that currently has this set up for elephants is the Dallas Zoo.  They have the elephants in a habitat with impala and giraffe.   In this type of habitat the elephants have the chance to interact with the other species as well as each other.  This does not come without risk however.  Most of the elephants that are currently under human care have not been in contact with other species so aggression can become an issue.  The design of the habitat is the only way you can manage this aggression.  The habitat at the Dallas Zoo has several rock formations and narrow gates that the other species can easily get through that provides them with safe zones if they feel threatened.

Jordan: Is it fair to say that bond between trainer and animal in a zoo setting is fairly strong and in the case of working with elephants it is critical?

Jim: The bond between trainers/handlers and their animals is very strong.  No matter what animal you are working with the relationship is the key factor in your success or failure.  It doesn’t matter if it is a trained wild animal or a house pet; the animal has to be able to trust you.  The larger the animal the more important your relationship with them becomes.  The larger animals pose greater risks in terms of using drugs to assist with medical treatments.  Elephants can experience very serious issues if they are in a compromised position for more than a couple of hours.   If an elephant is down on it’s side for an extended period the blood supply to the down legs becomes compromised, the weight of the upside front leg on the chest can also put extra strain on the heart and lungs.  These factors require elephant trainers/handlers to train their animals to cooperate with as many medical procedures as possible.  In order to do this you have to build a strong positive relationship with the animals based on mutual respect and trust.  You cannot build this type of relationship based on fear or domination, many people who have tried this approach in the past end up in trouble down the road because the elephant is smart enough to figure this approach out and they will take advantage of a situation if that person lets their guard down.  You must have the type of relationship that allows the animal to trust you with it’s life.

All animals in zoos and circus’ are truly ambassadors for their species.  Anytime someone has the opportunity to meet an animal face to face or speak to the people who devote their lives to caring for the animals a special connection is made that goes so much further than seeing them in a book, on tv, or in a museum could ever achieve.  These connections also make it easier for us to help animals in their home range because we are able to bring the plight of so many endangered species to the masses.  There are millions of people throughout the country who go to zoos and circus performances and as animal care professionals we have the opportunity to influence every one of our guests.

Jordan: You are quite active in the Elephant Managers Association. Can you tell me a bit about what the organization does for elephants?

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Jim Naelitz and one of his charges at the Knoxville Zoo (Courtesy J. Naelitz)

Jim: The Elephant Manager’s Association is a group that is very dear to me. I have been a member of the EMA since I started working with elephants in 1992 and it always amazes me to see how far we have come as an organization.  The EMA officially started in 1988 after 8 years of holding annual meetings at various zoos around the country.  As an organization we are very active in all aspects of elephant care and conservation.  We hold an annual conference hosted by zoos throughout the country.  The organization has members from around the globe and you do not have to work with elephants to become a member.  The EMA has several different membership levels based on experience and interest.  In addition to an annual conference the EMA communicates with it’s members by publishing a quarterly journal and a smaller newsletter in between journal publications.  Our board is very active in all governmental and judicial initiatives that will ultimately influence our profession.  The organization works closely with the elephant SSP/TAG.  We raise funds for various conservation projects world-wide.  They also offer elephant care professionals scholarships to help defer the costs of professional development classes and workshops.  This is just scratches the surface of what the EMA is.  Anyone interested in the organization can go to our website www.elephantmanagers.com for more information.

Jordan: Many people are unaware of what captive elephant programs in zoos offer to field programs.  Zoos and field researchers sometimes work together for the benefit of animals, with the objective being to save elephants from extinction, correct?

Jim: There has been so much done with and by elephants under human care that resulted in positive contributions to their wild counterparts.  Most if not all of the researchers who are actively working in the field got started with financial assistance from zoos and circuses.  A few that come to mind are Cynthia Moss, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, and Katy Pane.  Many of the instruments and techniques used in the field were developed and tested on captive elephants because it is much easier to retrieve and repair/redesign in a controlled environment.  Many zoos raise money to help fund several conservation projects world-wide.  Most of these projects are funded by the International Elephant Foundation and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  Feld Entertainment (Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus), Riddle’s Elephant Sanctuary, and Have Trunk Will Travel are a couple of the private owners that make a huge impact on both captive and wild elephants through monetary funding as well as allowing various research projects to take place at their facilities.  There are too many projects to cover but two projects that are some of the most successful are travel corridors and using hot peppers to help reduce human elephant conflicts.  The land purchased for travel corridors was done so with funds provided by the IEF and the information used to determine the best locations for these corridors was collected by radio collaring several herds of elephants and monitoring their migration routes from year to year.  The hot pepper project was a result of observing the feeding habits of elephants in zoos.  We learned that none of the elephants in zoos eat hot peppers.  In elephant range countries herds of elephants will come in and wipe out a village’s entire food supply in one night.  As a result of our observations villages that have had problems with crop raiding elephants are planting a few rows of hot peppers around their crops and the peppers act as a deterrent to the elephants.  The peppers can save their crops as well as provide the villages another source of income; they harvest the peppers and can use them to make salsa or other products with them.

Jordan: Elephant work can be very dangerous.  Can you share your opinion of free contact vs protected contact elephant training?

Jim: I do not consider working with elephants a dangerous profession.  It definitely has it’s risks but so does any other animal based profession.  When you are working with any animal very few things are black and white, and working with elephants has a larger grey area than most others. (No pun intended) To put the risks in perspective: dogs kill an average of 10-20 people per year, in the last 22 years (in AZA facilities) we have lost 9 handlers/trainers with elephants and in the same time frame 10 people were killed working with large cats (also in AZA facilities).  I am not going to get into the issue of free vs. protected contact.  As a profession we are trying hard to get away from dividing the ranks with this debate.  We went through it 20 some years ago and it just gives the animal rights extremist groups the opportunity to strike; if we can’t get along with each other how are we going to show a united front against the groups that are trying to end what we have devoted our lives to?  Rather than only looking at things as one management style or another each elephant should be approached on an individual basis and just look at what we do as elephant management.

Jordan: What is your hope for the future direction of elephant management in captive breeding centers?

Jim: My hope for the future of elephant management is to provide the best care for our elephants that we possibly can.  In the 21 years that I have been working with elephants has seen many changes and improvements to the care we are capable of providing the elephants under human care.  In that time we have seen the average life expectancy rise from late teens to late thirties.  In the early 90’s the adage was that elephants are 8,000 to 10,000 pound horses.  With that thought they were often medically treated like equines with the drug dosage being adjusted by weight ratios.  Through the years various research has been done that has allowed us to learn exactly how effective the various drugs are when used to treat elephants.  We have also learned different handling and husbandry techniques that allow us to build stronger relationships with our elephants which is critical for providing the best environment for our elephants.  We have made great strides in many areas of elephant management but there are still many more that we need to make.  As I mentioned earlier there is a ton of research being done on TB and the elephant herpes virus that has provided us the opportunity to be able to treat these issues in a more effective manner.  Up to a few years ago the herpes virus was a death sentence for elephants.  We have learned how to notice the symptoms quicker and begin treatment and Houston and St. Louis have shown much success in the treatment regimen.  Most recently the Baltimore Zoo has also gone through a herpes scare with their young male.  He is showing great strides throughout the treatment, which shows just how dedicated the trainers and handlers are to providing our elephants with proper care.  One area that, in my opinion, we need to focus more on is nutrition.  Most of our elephants are overweight.  We are dealing with arthritis issues in many elderly animals which is not a surprise since arthritis has been observed in every land mammal species.  I think nutrition is becoming an issue because we are seeing a very rapid growth rate in the younger animals.  This rapid growth rate puts added weight on joints that are not able to develop fast enough to handle that weight.  We are also seeing high birth weights compared to elephants in their home range.  One thing that comes to mind for me is the fact that elephants under human care do not encounter a dry season.  In Africa elephants encounter a dry season that requires them to walk long distances in order to find food and water.  These periods of poor nutrition keep growth rates and birth weights in check.  In zoos and circuses our elephants receive the same nutrition values year round.  One idea that some people in our profession are talking about is trying to alter the diets in an attempt to mimic a dry and wet season.  Before we follow through with diet modification we need to do more research on elephant dietary requirements and how to do this in the safest manner possible for the elephants.

Jordan: Facilities have to manage bull elephants and cows differently. Can you talk about this and any special consideration for herd dynamics in captivity?

Jim: The overall management of male and female elephants isn’t all that different.  The difference comes in their social requirements and temperament.  As a general rule of thumb males are not as social as the females.  Which is another change our management philosophy.  When I started working with elephants the assumption was that males were solitary outside of breeding opportunities.  As facilities have picked up the breeding rates and watching the males’ behavior in the presence of females and calves we have found that they do participate in play activity with young elephants.  This has resulted in many facilities allowing their males to go into the habitats with their females and young elephants under close supervision.  When the male shows signs that he is getting annoyed or wants to be left alone the staff immediately removes him from the situation before he has an opportunity to become aggressive.  This change in approach requires us to build enclosures that are capable of holding and maintaining males that can reach weights of 15,000 to 17,000 pounds.  I have seen two males snap 30-33 inch diameter walnut trees off at the ground so the engineering and design phase of a facility is a very critical part of the process.

 

(Updated May 10th 2013)
Follow-up interviews and responses to this piece by Dr. Jordan Schaul:

“After reading the April 23, 2013, NewsWatch online post, “Captive Elephant Management: Interview with Knoxville Zoo’s Curator of Elephants,” by guest blogger Jordan Carlton Schaul, I felt compelled to respond. I am the president, and co-founder, of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).”- Ed Stewart

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/03/no-ethical-way-to-keep-elephants-in-captivity/ (Response from Ed Stewart)

Any discussion of elephants in captivity is met with controversy and criticism. [In the post above], I asked my colleague Jim Naelitz to provide his expert view on elephant management in zoos. The career elephant trainer and curator has worked with elephants at three AZA institutions. I felt Jim would provide a perspective fairly representing zoo elephant professionals. I asked him to share his opinions and he graciously agreed to do so.  However—as you can see below—many of his statements received a great deal of criticism by other professionals in the field and from animal activists.

Some adamantly requested that I seek other perspectives to provide the National Geographic readership with a more balanced view of elephant management in zoos.  I turned to my colleague Michael Hutchins. Dr. Hutchins is the former AZA Director/William Conway Chair of Conservation and Science who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles about elephant management in accredited zoos. He also organized and led the AZA Elephant Planning Initiative in 1999 and co-authored the report titled:  Elephant Planning Initiative: The Future of Elephants in North American Zoos.  This document and its recommendations provided the impetus for many, if not most, of the improvements in elephant management that we see in AZA-accredited zoos today.

He read the Naelitz interview and these are his responses to the same questions:

http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/05/elephants-in-captivity-a-perspective-from-former-aza-directorwilliam-conway-chair-of-conservation-science/  (Interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins)

 

Comments

  1. Carlos
    Ontario Canada
    January 15, 6:01 am

    Watch video on “Have trunk will travel” then have someone who knows what they are talking about write a story.

    http://vimeo.com/23564589

  2. Moon
    July 19, 2013, 3:46 am

    I just love animals! And another news… I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in PETAAsiaPacific.com, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: https://www.facebook.com/FreeMali. She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? :( Please Help Her!

  3. elephant highway
    USA
    May 16, 2013, 5:16 am

    Thanks that was very useful article.clearly worked hard on the armor and it came out great.Thanks for posting!

  4. Lynn
    May 15, 2013, 4:23 pm

    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/28964677/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/cruelty-to-elephants-circus-case-heads-trial/ One of the Board of the Elephant Managers group works for Ringling ….

  5. Eden Grace
    Oakland
    May 8, 2013, 5:06 pm

    The Detroit and San Francisco zoos both sent their elephants to sanctuarys.
    The Toronto Zoo city council voted to send their elephants to sanctuary this month.
    Countries that now ban llive-animal circuses now include Greece and Indonesia.
    No zoo is conserving elephant species. Non are being returne to the wild.
    Look up the so called “progressive” Portland zoo elephant breeding program and you will find that the bulls are rented from Have Trunk Will Travel, a disgusting frequently investigated performing animal company, and then this same company “owns” the offspring. This zoo sells its babies. These elephants get transferred many times in their lives and the biggest buyers are circuses. That is not conservation and neither is Knoxvilles sad breeding program.

  6. carl safina
    Stony Brook New York
    May 7, 2013, 10:01 am

    It’s wholly inaccurate to assert that, “in the wild animals only tend to move as far as their nutritional requirements demand.” That is wrong. I have often watched (visually and with tracking collars) elephants eat and drink in virtually the same spot, then walk for miles to where they will sleep, or walk miles to a different place, perhaps to feed on something else they know is there, or perhaps just because they want to check out known places to see what’s growing there, who’s there, or what’s going on. Everyone who knows elephants in the wild agrees that they do things for reasons that we don’t know, and that it often appears they do things that require significant energy just because they feel like it. And when food and water are plentiful, they don’t need to be too concerned about conserving energy. And apparently, they’re not.

    Also, it seems unfortunate that the interviewee is more concerned about “presenting a united front” against animal extremists than about devoting himself to the best possible welfare for elephants, which after all would be the best way to weaken extremist arguments. I am ambivalent about zoos by the way; I see plusses and minuses, depending on welfare and concept. But I’d put this article in the minus category. It certainly offended many who were moved to comment.

  7. Unknown Trainer
    USA
    May 7, 2013, 8:43 am

    Paul O’Sullivan’s comments are dead-on. Elephants can be managed with care and compassion, but not by people like Naelitz and the other circus-huggers who dominate AZA elephant programs. Shame on NatGeo and Jordan Schaul for not knowing better… OTOH, no one really knows about elephant welfare in the “sanctuaries” because all we get to see are videos produced by the people collecting contributions and promoting them.

  8. Kris McMartin
    Toronto CANADA
    May 6, 2013, 10:33 pm

    This article is a deplorable piece of fiction. Doesn’t anyone at Nat Geo research topics? Nat Geo has previously published articles about elephant conservation (Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) that fully counter the garbage in this interview. I look forward to the Toronto elephants finally leaving the hell hole they currently reside at to live out the rest of their days at PAWS. Circuses use animals like they used humans with freak shows – depravity, arrogance and blatant cruelty for a buck. Most zoos, with their amusement park rides, water parks and tacky gift shops neither educate nor enlighten the masses about conservation or animal cruelty. Ed Stewart (and the late Pat Derby), Carol Buckley, Cynthia Moss, Jane Goodall, Joyce Poole, Dame Daphne Sheldrick (David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust), Lek Chailert (Elephant Nature Park), Louise Rogerson (Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation) and Katherine Connor (Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary) understand conservation. Zoos do NOT. “To put an elephant in a zoo is like putting a human in a cupboard for life. Now the worst thing we do to humans is life imprisonment for some terrible crime. Is it really humane to take a animal from its natural family and stuff it in a cupboard for life just so that a whole lot humans can come and goggle at it? I don’t think it is.” – Dame Daphne Sheldrick

  9. Carmen
    Earth
    May 6, 2013, 5:04 pm

    Circuses are notorious for cruelty to the animals they use/abuse. The elephant, due to its size, is treated abysmally by the cretins who make money off the backs of elephants. The so-called “Elephant Conservatory” located near Tampa is nothing more than a breeding and training center to keep circuses supplied with “performing” elephants. The small babies are taken from their mother, (who is tied down to stop her from helping her baby) then forced to learn unnatural acts to amuse the paying public. The babies scream and wail, the mothers are bellowing and struggling, while 4 men use all sorts of instruments of horror and pain to “train” the babies to learn stupid tricks. Anyone who thinks this is okay is insane. The circuses who use animals are antiquated, not fun nor amusing. Much more entertaining is watching trained PEOPLE do stunning acts, such as Cirque du Soleil and the Chinese Shen Yun. The article above is so full of stupidity, I am surprised NatGeo bothered with it at all. If you agree, join the movement to get elephants in America OUT OF ZOOS & CIRCUSES. India has done it, the USA is capable of doing it, too. The AZA is an organization to promote zoos/circuses for MONEY and the animals get NO consideration from the AZA. SEND ALL ELEPHANTS TO SANCTUARY, there are only 2 in the US. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and PAWS in Galt, California. Either one is preferable to the horrific living conditions most elephants in America are enduring.

  10. Michael Bailey
    United States
    May 5, 2013, 1:54 pm

    This article is a betrayal to what National Geographic SHOULD stand for.Deplorable journalism and disregard for ethics.

  11. Paul O'Sullivan
    United States
    May 4, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Elephants and humans have co-existed and lived side-by-side for thousands of years. To make the argument that no elephant should be kept in “captivity” is promoted solely by those with a very limited view of the world as black and white, yes or now, up or down. It is a much more complex subject that that. For one, “animal sanctuaries” ARE captivity – simply another form of captivity. Second, wild elephants are experiencing a dramatic loss of habitat creating terrible suffering for both man and animal and threatening the very existence of the species. Finally, human treatment of captive animals is the goal of all good-willed institutions that give exotic animals a home for which the public has a right to have a voice – not simply self-prolaimed “animal rights activists.” If we are to be honest, then the debate must be HOW to manage captive animals, not IF. Regarding elephants in particular, they are highly social, intelligent and loving animals that in fact ENJOY their human contact when in the correct environment. There is tremendous and obvious documentation of this fact that is totally ignored by most of the comments to this post. That means they are either ignorantly biased or purposefully and cynically propagandizing their position – perhaps to raise funds for their own narrow cause? Poor elephants – with friends like those, who needs enemies?

  12. Michael Sultana
    NJ
    May 4, 2013, 9:11 am

    PAWS and the Elephant Sanctuary have raised the bar on life for captive elephants. Jordan Schaul and Jim Naelitz are members of a society called CLUELESS and are two of many members of that society that suffer from a severe case of tunnel vision!!!

  13. Connie
    United States
    May 3, 2013, 7:42 pm

    If zoos want to continue to keep elephants in captivity, they need to 1. Get a divorce from circuses, 2. Start using protective contact only for training 3. Enlarge and improve the areas available to elephants to roam, socialize, relax and nap. 4. Stop all breeding programs. Elephants do not belong in captivity.

    So, only rich people will be able to go on safari. Well only rich people own jets, and rolls royces, and palaces. It is not an elephants responsibility to be an ambassador to everyone on earth.

  14. Ed Stewart
    May 3, 2013, 6:41 pm

    It surprises me that National Geographic would publish such an out-dated, and one-sided perspective on elephant care and management. I expected a more progressive voice on this important issue. In the future, I would hope that National Geographic would be more careful in selecting the articles it presents on the issue of elephants in captivity. It does a disservice to your readers, and to the elephants, to present erroneous and outdated information. Please see http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/03/no-ethical-way-to-keep-elephants-in-captivity/ for my response to Mr. Schaul’s article.

  15. Leslie Sodaro
    Forest Grove, OR USA
    April 26, 2013, 3:37 pm

    I ask that National Geographic dig a lot deeper into the subject of keeping elephants and how they should be kept in captivity. For all the reasons provided by my fellow commenters, NG has done a huge disservice to the elephants by providing such a one-sided and erroneous article.

  16. Teresa Nutter
    Lebanon, MO. USA
    April 26, 2013, 3:16 pm

    If a wild animal cannot be kept healthy and happy in captivity they need to be in an environment where they can be. What’s the use in having elephants in zoos for a child can see it in real life if all they are gonna see are sick and sad ones. These gentle giants need to be free. Humans need more attention. Elephants don’t go around bombing and such. Enough said!

  17. Tory Braden
    Menlo Park
    April 26, 2013, 2:49 pm

    These lies are published on National Geographic?!!! You who quote people who really know elephants such as Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss? Right in the first paragraph is the lie that zoo breeding is for their sucker-sell bite, “conservation.” It’s for money making babies, pure and simple, even if those babies die painful deaths when born to mothers known to have herpes. Absolutely beneath Nat. Geo. What were you thinking? Where is your editor?

  18. Marna Herrington
    USA
    April 26, 2013, 12:43 am

    I am absolutely wide-eyed as I read this article- every claim is either flat out wrong or just an ill-informed opinion. I’m agog that National Geographic published this:

    “Zoos do offer two things that not all sanctuaries provide. First, they offer that irreplaceable experience for a child to feel that moment of exhilaration upon meeting a living and breathing wild animal—something that a mounted specimen in a museum cannot provide. They also contribute to conservation breeding programs for vanishing species along with research programs that aide in the development of improved husbandry and healthcare as well as the better management of free-ranging populations.”

    Seeing a captive animal in a zoo is not anything like viewing or meeting an animal in the wild. (Derrick Jensen’s excellent book “Thought to Exist in the Wild” explores this fully, however, the vast, tragic differences between seeing a captive animal that has no choice about anything in its life versus the behavior of a free animal in the wild hardly needs to be explained. Also, in this day and age of the internet and video technology, outstanding viewing of animals in the wild is a click away. There is no need to tear wild animals away from their families and herds to a continent they are ill-suited for and put them in cages or other unsuitable habitat so some kid can supposedly feel “exhilaration” at the site.)

    I absolutely do not understand the claim that zoos contribute to elephant conservation with their captive breeding programs. It has been proven over and over that zoo breeding programs are a failure. More elephants die in zoos than live. Even if lots of elephants lived long, healthy lives in zoos and had lots of healthy babies (they don’t) this does not help the crisis elephants face in the wild. Wild elephants play a vital role in our entire ecosystem, and to lose our wild elephant herds would be devastating to other animal, bird, insect and plant life. Forcibly breeding captive elephants will not change this. If zoos wanted to get serious about conservation, they would put generous funds toward conservation groups that help stop illegal ivory poaching and help preserve elephant habitat (two huge threats elephants face in the wild) instead of fussing around with captive elephant breeding programs. (Elephants, by the way, have no problem mating and producing healthy offspring in the wild.)

    I’ve also read this claim before that zoo research on captive elephants is somehow truly beneficial to elephants in the wild- but these benefits seem to be meager, if at all, especially when viewed next to the work real conservation and research groups do (WWF, IFWA, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Elephant Voices, The Amboseli Trust for Elephants, etc.,. ) to preserve the elephant herds in the wild.

  19. CRITHA FRANSE
    Knoxville , Tn
    April 24, 2013, 11:15 pm

    I don’t think this zoo or any zoo should have elephants and after this article I am even more convinced the Knoxville Zoo should not have an elephant captivity program !!! I read on our local news site that the eles are seen swaying back and forth and exhibiting aggressive behavior because of boredom and small spaces and every reason an elephant should not be held captive . Very sad:(

  20. J. Wood
    Knoxville, Tennessee
    April 24, 2013, 11:13 pm

    The US Bureau of Labor Statistics rates elephant handling as THE MOST dangerous job in North America. It’s more dangerous, even, than coal mining and this man and this man has the audacity to suggest that it is not dangerous? Even after one of his own keepers was recently killed by Edie, one of the female elephants at the Knoxville Zoo? I don’t understand why he would try to make light of such a serious situation. And then to suggest that close contact is okay is gut wrenching. Stephanie James died because the Knoxville Zoo valued close contact and bullhooks over protected contact. Elephants need bonds with each other, not with humans. They need the safety of protected contact. Better yet, they need to be protected and living in the wild. The living space the Knoxville Zoo calls a habitat is deplorable. If the girls there are loved as he suggests they are, he should send them to the Elephant Sanctuary in Howenwald, Tennessee and put his money where his mouth is. Oh, and the comment he made, “All animals in zoos and circus’ are truly ambassadors for their species” completely lost any respect I might have had left. Circuses are the very worst places for any animal, let alone elephants.

  21. Stephanie Barret
    Washington, DC
    April 24, 2013, 10:44 pm

    Mike Carpenter and Keth Lindsay – there is nothing more to say, I fully agree with both of you. What a shameful piece of propaganda this is, and how ignorant this is of what is good for elephants and what the zoo industry contributes to conservation (nothing). Shame on you National Geographic. I thought you were on the side of the animals?

  22. ChristinaTenti
    Saint Louis, MO
    April 24, 2013, 8:40 pm

    No words. There is no justification. Elephants do not belong in captivity.

  23. Hugh
    April 24, 2013, 8:29 pm

    This is BS.
    The only place an Elephant should live is in the wild
    Captivity is exactly what it is =
    “The state or period of being imprisoned, confined, or enslaved”
    Zoo’s are merely circuses that appear to have an air of legitimacy but they’re all the same, cruel imprisonment.

  24. Aretha Crout
    Los Angeles, CA
    April 24, 2013, 8:20 pm

    “Jim: I do not consider working with elephants a dangerous profession. It definitely has it’s risks but so does any other animal based profession.” See, right there Jim you’ve lost all credibility with me. As to the justifying smaller enclosures for elephants, I must disagree with you there as well. Elephants spend the majority of each day (up to 20 hours!) moving about, not just foraging for food, playing, searching for mates, exploring their territory, etc. Just because food in a zoo is plentiful, the need to walk long distances is not removed. Elephants MUST walk to keep proper blood circulation in their feet. Foot infections are a leading cause of death in captive elephants. Foot problems created by lack of exercise, overweight bodies, and/or standing on hard earth or concrete floors in cool, damp conditions. All of the mental enrichment in the world cannot solve this problem. Finally, keeping adult bull elephants in a herd setting in a small area is asking for trouble, particularly if they are in must.

  25. Wendy Black
    United States
    April 24, 2013, 8:00 pm

    Pumping up some relic zookeeper in Knoxville Tennessee of all places, in National Geographic? I am shocked. Maybe the author of the piece should do a little more research on his subject matter before putting pen to paper. Anyone wanting to read some uplifting news about something relevant happening in the world should look up England’s very recent banning of all animals in circuses.

  26. Diann Ranum
    April 24, 2013, 7:50 pm

    OMG I expected so much more from National Geographic. This article presents outdated and dangerous notions about elephant training and utterly ignores the serious welfare problems that elephants face in some zoos. Watch the HBO documentary, “An Apology to Elephants” that premiered this week. This documentary is truly enlightening and not a fluff piece like this article.

  27. Mara smith
    Boston, ma
    April 24, 2013, 7:48 pm

    I always thought National Geographic was a supporter of the Earth. This interview is with someone whose approach to animals is 19th century. The 21st century sees that circuses and zoos, bull hooks and beatings are remnants of the view that animals live to amuse humans. Is this what you stand for?

  28. Sabine Verelst
    United States
    April 24, 2013, 7:08 pm

    Jim Naelitz does not have any compassionate or respectful connection to elephants, and his work experience does not seem to have taught him anything useful about these special creatures. The ideas about elephant training ignores the serious welfare problems that elephants face in some zoos today. Pick someone else for astounding information on elephants – there is plenty out there today. We do not need to go back in time – rather, we should learn to become a responsible, educated and kind civilization that treats wild animals with respect and dignity that they deserve, and teach our children the same.

  29. Scarlett Taylor
    April 24, 2013, 2:54 pm

    I’ll admit my eyes widened when I read Naelitz exclaim that he didn’t think elephant keeping was a dangerous profession. Even when he compared the amount of deaths to another species, he’s still pointing out DEATHS! Ask a zoo what the acceptable death rate of baby elephants is, they will immediately exclaim “zero”. And I agree. Zoos should eliminate ALL risks when delivering a baby, and do EVERYTHING to save a calf that gets sick. But if you ask these same zoos how many zookeepers’ deaths is acceptable and they start stuttering with “that’s a grey area”.
    Although I do find it interesting when a news piece supports zoos, it is full of misleading statements according to animal rights people. And they are so quick to jump on that, but then the animal rights people are APPALLED when zoo supporters jump on them for a news piece that is published against zoos, and is also filled with misleading and incorrect information. It’s really interesting because I have found that anti-zoo pieces are typically full of more misleading or half-truths than zoo supporting pieces are.
    I am glad that an elephant keeper was able to give their side of things. It is one side of the story, but animal rights’ people have been telling their side for so long it is refreshing to hear the other for a change.

  30. jjsmith
    April 24, 2013, 10:48 am

    If you are not going to allow comments please remove comment post.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 24, 2013, 10:53 am

      Hi. We do allow comments but we have a moderation system, I’ll check to see if you have any stuck in the cue now.

  31. m knowles
    April 23, 2013, 8:49 pm

    That picture of the elephant sitting on a log to look as if it’s reading a newspaper does nothing to maintain the dignity and natural behavior of the species. Looks to me like a keeper wanted to show off.

  32. Mike Carpenter
    April 23, 2013, 1:49 pm

    This is a total fluff piece, littered with so many discrepancies and scripted content that it belongs in the editorial section. With all due respect Mr. Schaul is a zoo veterinarian, and Mr. Naelitz is an example of the ‘old guard’ of elephant handlers, who is desperately trying to keep up with the progressive elephant management. This ‘interview’ should have been conducted with the true leaders in the field- the managers of Oakland, Phoenix, North Carolina, Busch in Tampa, etc., not the pro-circus relics that turn a blind eye to the record cases of violations of the Animal Welfare Act by Ringling, one exposé after another of the abuse by Have Trunk Will Travel, and the confiscations due to neglect by other private owners and circuses. And these same people who have been found to abuse elephants server on the boards of the IEF and EMA, without any repercussions or accountability. How can you violate every single code of ethics and still serve as officer in a ‘conservation’ organization? The IEF and EMA have ZERO credibility- they are riddled with animal abusers and hold ZERO accountability. No surprise coming from Naelitz- “not dangerous profession”… It sure was dangerous for the keeper that was killed under his program. How can you say something like that if you are a responsible leader or even professional in the slightesr?? This is total PR fluff, trying to sway the public, trying to manage the damage control, but it’s too late. The public knows what is right and wrong, they are smart enough to know what the rest of us in the field already know- that the circus and those who use hooks are nothing but animal abuser-selfishly, desperately, and foolishly trying to hold on to their old antiquated ways. What a laughably lame piece of transparent propaganda this is!

  33. Keith Lindsay
    Oxford and Kenya
    April 23, 2013, 8:59 am

    This article is so full of misleading and downright incorrect statements that it is hard to know where to begin. Both the interviewer and interviewee portray deep-rooted, possibly wilful, ignorance of elephant biology and an extremely narrow approach to elephant well-being. Zoos make a shamefully small contribution to elephant conservation in the wild and are largely unsuccessful at breeding and caring for healthy elephants in their inadequate compounds, while circuses provide nothing at all, apart from a life of terrible suffering. Both types of institution are in the entertainment business alone, and recent attempts to airbrush their images with misleading claims about conservation are self-deluding at best and intellectually dishonest.