Two Texas zoos have earned a spot on a national list — but this is one list they probably won't be touting.
The Dallas Zoo and the Caldwell Zoo in Tyler both made the 2018 list of the "10 Worst Zoos For Elephants in North America," an annual list that ranks zoos' treatment of captive elephants.
The 2018 list reveals outdated, failing, and cruel practices that are harming and killing elephants in U.S. zoos. The list is issued by In Defense of Animals (IDA), a California-based advocacy group that has been tracking zoo practices and releasing an annual report for 15 years.
Dallas Zoo is at #3 on list, for "severing the social bonds of traumatized elephants."
Caldwell Zoo is #7, for keeping an elephant named Tonya in solitary confinement.
Marilyn Kroplick, president of In Defense of Animals, says in a release that elephants are "not thriving" in Texas zoos.
"Dallas Zoo and Caldwell Zoo continue to use and abuse elephants as property in their relentless pursuit of profits — and the animals always pay the price," she says.
In 2016, the Dallas Zoo, along with Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, removed 18 elephants from their families in Swaziland, amid condemnation from conservationists around the world.
"These elephants were treated like products," IDA says, "bought from a corrupt Swazi safari park operator to shore up the dwindling number of elephants on display in U.S. zoos."
The Dallas Zoo stated at the time that it would keep the elephants within their social circles. But in October 2018, two years after the import, the Dallas Zoo upended the elephants' lives by shipping two of the elephants, Nolwazi and Amahle, from Dallas to the Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California.
This separation severed their bonds with the Swazi elephants left behind, some of whom may be their relatives, solely for the purpose of breeding.
In Defense of Animals spokesperson Fleur Dawes says that the Dallas Zoo is ignoring the "science of elephant well-being." Science has shown that elephants have complex minds, an array of deep emotions, and are self-aware — all of which are negatively affected by separating bonded females or mothers and calves.
"Dallas Zoo caused an international outcry when it cold-heartedly kidnapped elephants from their families in Swaziland, and now it is further damaging these traumatized elephants by shipping them off like commodities to other zoos," she says. "We urge the Dallas Zoo to stop horrifically severing elephant social bonds: end elephant trading to other zoos, and commit to closing down this cruel elephant exhibit."
Until May 2018, Caldwell Zoo had two female African elephants — Rolinda, 46, and Tonya, 41. But Rolinda, who had been at the zoo since 1978, was euthanized, due to unspecified health issues. Her death left Tonya alone — considered highly unnatural and cruel for any member of this social species.
Keeping a solitary elephant is a violation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) own elephant standards, of which Caldwell Zoo is a member.
Rolinda wasn't the only elephant to die prematurely at this zoo. Chip, Chico, and Binti all died between 24 and 44 years of age from "unknown causes," according to public records. The natural lifespan for elephants often extends to 60-70 years.
Dawes says that they'd like to see Tonya relocated to a sanctuary.
"Due to her life in captivity, Tonya is statistically likely to have only a few years left," she says. "We urge the Caldwell Zoo and the Caldwell Foundation to set an ethical example for children by relocating her to a natural habitat sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, where she can live a more natural life among other elephants."
Elephant deaths at zoos continue to outpace births due to captivity-caused conditions like obesity, arthritis, and foot disease. Still, zoos are spending millions of dollars on renovating or building new exhibits, even though there aren’t enough elephants to fill them.
The full list is as follows:
- Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York
- Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia
- Dallas Zoo, Dallas, Texas
- Louisville Zoo, Louisville, Kentucky
- Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, Rhode Island
- Birmingham Zoo, Birmingham, Alabama
- Caldwell Foundation Zoo, Tyler, Texas
- Topeka Zoo, Topeka, Kansas
- Seneca Park Zoo, Rochester, New York
- Milwaukee County Zoo, Milwaukee, Wisconsin