The Oklahoma City Zoo has responded to questions I asked about what I see as the precarious living conditions of its elephant Bamboo, which I outlined in my last post.
— KOCO-5 Oklahoma City (@koconews) August 23, 2016
The general thrust of OKC Zoo’s argument—zoos contribute to the welfare of elephants as an overall threatened animal population and help try to prevent their extinction—is something I clearly referred to and discussed in the initial post so there’s nothing new there, although I do quote the response in full below out of fairness. I understand this argument, but I don’t agree with the solution for it.
This is from Candice Rennels, the marketing and public relations manager for the zoo:
As stated on the medical records that you have for Bamboo during those dates, we suspect that her tail wound was caused by the bite of a conspecific, although we have no visual evidence to substantiate that. We also suspect that this was caused as the elephants established their dominance hierarchy. Developing these relationships is a normal and necessary process as a new group becomes established. Since the last incident in March, we have not seen any recurrence. We would also like to point out that much of the misinformation that is being stated about zoos ignoring sound science is false. Zoos have in fact been in support of not only funding the science behind elephant welfare, but requiring the management of elephants based on those scientific findings. I would encourage anyone to visit [this] website to review the most up to date scientific articles on elephant welfare and how zoos are playing an important role.
“Conspecific” means a member of the same species or, in this case, another elephant. I also encourage everyone to go to the site listed above by Rennels. The debate over keeping elephants healthy in captivity in smaller enclosures, such as zoos, has been around for a long time.
As I stated in my initial post, “This is for the most part an argument between well-intentioned and compassionate people with concerns for animals and nature in general.”
The 49-year-old Bamboo was obtained by the zoo in 2015 from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle when it closed its elephant exhibit. Another elephant from the same Seattle zoo, 37-year-old Chai, died in Oklahoma City in January. Another elephant, 4-year-old Malee, died at the Oklahoma City Zoo last October. Bamboo, as I outlined Monday, has apparently suffered bites on her tail from another elephant and been kept in isolation at times.
My post Monday quoted extensively from records Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants organization and I obtained from the zoo so I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already done so.
As my post and science writer Sandi Doughton for The Seattle Times notes, the zoo has been trying recently to make it more difficult for the public to obtain records about the condition and medical treatment of its animals because of what they call disruption for zoo employees. It appears the zoo is now backing off on that position, according to Doughton in her story, but we’ll see.
I asked Rennels to give me information about how much time Bamboo spends in an inside stall at the zoo isolated on a daily basis from the other elephants. I passed on some questions to Oklahoma City Zoo Executive Director Dwight Lawson, who has a doctorate in biology, as I explore and inquire more about the relationship between academia and zoos. I have in the past discussed the ethics of animal-testing for products and medical treatment and climate change with my science colleagues. I think Oklahoma City would benefit from a larger, philosophical discussion about zoo elephants.
Here were those questions for Dr. Lawson:
(1) As a biologist with a doctorate do you support the living conditions of the elephants at the Oklahoma Zoo? How does your academic background contribute to your support or non-support of the living conditions of the elephants?
(2) Do you believe other biologists with doctorates like yourself generally support or endorse keeping elephants in captivity in smaller enclosures like zoos?
(3) Do you think there’s a growing awareness that keeping elephants in zoos or as part of circuses is unhealthy for them? If not, why?
(4) Do you see yourself more as a zoo promoter than a biologist?
(5) In general, do you think academic biology departments at universities promote keeping larger animals, such as elephants, in zoos?
(6) Do you support elephant and other large-animal sanctuaries?
I have yet to receive a response, of course. Rennels actually criticized me in an email for publishing my initial post without allowing the zoo to comment, but I submitted my questions three days in advance before that post. Now, they won’t respond to me again in a timely fashion.
My idea is to start a real academic and learned debate here about the plight of elephants in zoos and elsewhere, not to damage anyone’s career or demean anyone at the OKC Zoo. We all care about the elephants. There are no easy answers to any of this, and everyone should be heard, but the OKC Zoo must NOT erect barriers for people seeking information about the welfare of its animals.
Blue Oklahoma and Okie Funk are as good places as any for now for such a local debate, but Dr. Lawson who came here in 2014 from Atlanta, obviously doesn’t want to engage in an intellectual discussion. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lawson is just using the OKC Zoo as a jumping point for another higher-paying gig in the zoo business. Why would he even hassle with this? You know the type. Two, three years in Oklahoma, and then on to a larger, cooler city with better pay. I get it. But we’ll get stuck with the legacy of animal cruelty and his indifference.
The philosophical issue: Should we treat non-domestic, wild animals differently on some type of scale based on what we perceive to be their level of human-like qualities, such as empathy, other expressed emotions and even physical size? Is the life of a human or a huge elephant more important than the life of a turtle or a small fox or a tiny lizard or an owl or an ostrich, a peacock, a monkey, a lion, a bear, a beaver, an armadillo, a mouse? What about our pets we love so much? Do or should we gauge our responses on how we rate the animal’s importance based on its contribution to the eco-system? Is it emotional only? Is there scientific information that can clarify it all?
Are larger animals, especially elephants, just not suited for zoo settings? I would answer a decisive “YES!” to this question at this juncture in our history. They live in imprisoned torture on a daily basis in zoos or circuses.
When you applaud and cheer for an enslaved elephant on some sort of platform as it’s given cheap food treats while suffering through its chronic foot and other captivity-related problems and as it performs a short entertaining dance or gesture for you and the kids, well, you’re sanctioning basic animal abuse.
There are no easy answers for the other questions I posed and still hundreds more to be considered and to come later about animals kept in captivity in small enclosures. Every generation needs to engage in this important discourse, which OKC leaders seem to be trying to shut down with their actions about restricting access to records and other actions.