On July 14, the Dallas Zoo was cast into the national spotlight when the New York Times published a Sunday magazine cover story about its role in importing a group of wild elephants from Swaziland in 2016.
The article, called "Zoos Called It a 'Rescue.' But Are the Elephants Really Better Off?", recounts the plot by three zoos to rip animals from the wild, despite mounting evidence that elephants are miserable in captivity and do not thrive.
The Dallas Zoo — in partnership with the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska — justified the act by what the Times called a "tall tale" about elephants crowding out rhinos and other animals. The zoos hinted that the elephants would be killed were they not "rescued."
The Dallas Zoo has yet to acknowledge the story. But since it was published, the zoo has mounted a counter-offensive via a series of puffy pieces such as its mission to "save baby flamingos" in South Africa, its recycling of plastic gloves, and its claim that video of one of its lion cubs may have been used in the remake of The Lion King.
The author of the Times article was Charles Siebert, who has written about animals for the newspaper for more than a decade, and has also written several books on the interactions between humans and animals.
Here, he shares some of the behind-the-scenes efforts it took over the course of nearly four years to get it into print.
How it began
Siebert began to get urgent emails in 2015 from people in the elephant world, letting him know that the zoos had applied for a permit with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to import the elephants.
"At the time, I was up to my eyeballs getting adjusted with a new job, but I wrote an editorial about it," he says. "Just as it was about to run, the shootings in Paris happened in November 2015, and that op ed got wiped off the board. Then in spring 2016, the zoos were granted their permit to import the elephants, and I felt like I couldn't let it drop."
"How was it possible in 2016, given all we know about elephants, that these three zoos were even attempting this?" he says. "I naively thought they didn't have a prayer, particularly since they were repeating the same tale about rescue the San Diego Zoo and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa had told in 2003, when they imported elephants from Swaziland. There'd been so much debate at the time, it seemed laughable that the zoos would try it again. I thought, 'These people must be out of their mind.'"
Fox and henhouse
One of Siebert's most valuable sources for the story was Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Ashe had previously been director of Fish & Wildlife and had granted the zoos permission to import the elephants.
"And if that doesn't speak volumes about who's in whose pocket, I don't know what does," Siebert says.
"I asked him, 'I know it wasn't your job to personally review the permit application — but you're head of Fish & Wildlife, doesn't it raise a flag that it's the same story being told?' Dan said, 'I wasn't aware of that, but our main consideration is whether an importation is going to be for profit or harmful for species as a whole.'"
"I'm not sure how could this be for anything but for profit, since it's the biggest attraction at zoos, but zoos always engage in this double-speak," Siebert says. "I just couldn't believe that more than a decade after the San Diego import, we were having the same conversation again."
In 2016, Siebert visited all three zoos, then went to Swaziland in the fall. He turned in his story in December. The story wasn't published immediately. To stay up to date on the elephants' status, he revisited the zoos in 2018.
"I visited Dallas Zoo, but as a regular patron," Siebert says. "I encountered caring, concerned employees at all of the zoos, but there was always that queasy feeling of the willful denial of the zoo's corrosive effect on animals. It's easy with elephants to paint that over, because they present so cheerfully. Through the built-in bars that mar human perception, they come across as jolly, with their flappy ears, like Disney's Dumbo."
Zoos don't seem capable of recognizing that elephants that have been ripped from their families are experiencing trauma.
"Every zoo is operating under the idea that they're fine, they're just elephants," he says. "Zoos with elephant exhibits are now required to keep at least three, but that can't begin to replicate the dynamic of their natural wild herd. Well, throw three strangers into a confined space, they're not necessarily going to get along."
"It's part of an unwillingness to accept that this is an upheaval, and a distortion of who they are as individual beings," he says.
Enough for a book
The story published by the Times had 7,500 words — but that was down from the 12,000 words that Siebert turned in. Nearly half of it got edited out, but Siebert has a plan.
"I did much more reporting than what ended up in the piece," he says. "I wrote not just about the Swaziland elephants, but a larger piece on the role of zoos in general. I wanted it to be longer, and that's why I'm writing a book."
"Aside from my love and respect for elephants, I think zoos represent an ongoing, complex subject," he says. "It's one of those longstanding questions about civilization itself, with all the darkness that comes with that. Why do we need to look at them and stare at them? At what point does our wonder no longer warrant another being's wounding?"
Especially now with modern technologies like CGI (computer-generated technology), which can portray amazingly lifelike animals with none of the cruel side effects.
"There are other ways to inspire wonder," he says. "Zoos should be obviated."