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An ill-fitting new home for the National Zoo's elephants

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By Peter Stroud
Sunday, August 22, 2010

I visited the National Zoo for the first time on a cold and rainy afternoon last fall. For more than 15 years, I have been deeply engaged with questions about captive elephant welfare, so I was particularly interested to see how the Smithsonian Institution had spent a colossal $50 million on Elephant Trails, the new home for its elephants set to open in early September.

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Since that visit, I have continued to follow the work on Elephant Trails. As a former zoo curator and director, I know that zoo development projects are complex and time-consuming, with many competing issues to balance. There are engineering and design challenges, visitor needs to be accounted for, restrictions imposed by the landscape and climate, and, of course, the welfare of the animals to consider.

The needs of wild animals in zoos can be hard to define, but there are a few basic rules. Top of the list is checking carefully the key aspects of a creature's life in the wild. What does it do with its days and nights? How far does it move and why? How does it interact with others of its kind?

Generally speaking, this sort of accounting works well, and many zoo programs create conditions and routines for animals that are broadly analogous to life in the wild. But the bigger the animal, the more difficult this becomes, especially where space is limited, the terrain difficult and the way of life of the species so complex that it is almost impossible to simulate.

Take, for instance, elephants at the National Zoo.

Elephants need space. Zoo people will often say it's the quality of the space that matters, and indeed it is -- to a point. Why, then, is the Elephant Trails landscape so unimaginative? There are sweeping green lawns and a shallow-looking pool, but little shade or shelter. The exhibit looks more like a golf course than an elephant habitat. There is nothing to engage or challenge an elephant.

Elephants need exercise. There is what the zoo calls an Exercise Trek -- a there-and-back route up a hill -- but it seems to be designed for elephants to be walked, circus-style, up and down, under the control of a handler. Elephants have soft feet and should never be made to walk any distance on concrete or asphalt, but the route is paved.

Elephants like to dust-bathe and wallow in mud. They like to dig and clamber about, and they like to rest against mounds of soft earth. Where are the piles of loose earth and sand? Where are the scratching posts? Where is the varied terrain, the boulders and logs and mud wallows? Why all this close-cropped green grass that will be worn away in mere days by pachyderm feet?

There are some good aspects to the exhibit. It provides more room for the elephants than they had previously, always a good thing. The surroundings will be lush and green in spring and summer.

But the things that are wrong are glaring if you consider how wild elephants live and how elephants could live in captivity. Fortunately, some of what I have listed above is fixable.

Harder to address are the problems for zoo visitors. It's generally accepted by zoo designers that it's a bad idea to place the viewer high above the animals. Visitors feel disconnected; the animals look small and remote. Better to put the viewer close up, at or below animal eye level, to create a sense of immediate engagement. This works better for the animals, too. Few species feel comfortable with activity going on above their heads.

Why, then, is one of the principal viewing points for the new exhibit a bridge soaring high above the elephant paddocks? It's hard to think of a better way to make an elephant look insignificant, an odd approach to showcasing one of nature's most spectacular creatures.

The Smithsonian Institution declares that it exists for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." It seems strange, then, that an elephant exhibit has been created that fails to account for what sound science tells us about elephants and their needs. It's as if a lot of published knowledge has been ignored. Unless improvements are made, Elephant Trails will fail to convey any real sense of what an elephant is.

The writer, a zoological consultant based in Melbourne, Australia, is a member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.


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