Senate Hearing Testimony Illustrates Why Zoos and Elephants are a Bad Mix

Hearings now complete, Senate Committee study to follow

An Opinion Editorial by Barry Kent MacKay

On April 11, 2024, the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs held a hearing with stakeholders to consider Bill S-15, an Act to Amend the Criminal Code and the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA). Bill S-15 is progressive legislation which, if passed, would eliminate the import and captive breeding of great apes and elephants in Canada. This hearing was the second of more than a half dozen hearings regarding Bill S-15.

Opposing Bill S-15 was African Lion Safari (ALS), a zoo located near Cambridge, Ontario. Speaking for ALS were Dr. Amy Chabot, from Queen’s University, and Charlie Gray, manager of the zoo’s Asian elephants, both replete with an impressive tranche of professional credentials, and ALS manager, Trish Gerth.

I have no knee-jerk opposition to zoos per se. But I think that if animals wild by nature are to be held captive, there should be a reason beyond their entertainment value, or ability to generate profits. The public is increasingly in agreement with that sentiment. The zoo community increasingly understands this, thus seeks to justify the custody of animals by saying it is done for reasons most of us support, these primarily being conservation, education, and animal welfare. Some animals are indeed held in some facilities in service of one or more of those socially acceptable goals. But not elephants.


Trish Gerth, after admitting that ALS was into its third generation of Asian elephants, said the zoo has, “…a proven track record for having one of the most successful conservation programs for Asian elephants in North America…” with the aim, “…ultimately to contribute to and increase the ex-situ population [of Asian elephants] in North America, as well as to support in-situ conservation efforts.”

For this to occur, she continued, “active international partners” are required, meaning the ability to continue captive breeding and the imports and exports Bill S-15 seeks to ban.  But after three generations of captive breeding, how can ALS claim to have had any conservation success?

Asian Elephants already know how to breed, and the conservation challenges they face – decreasing viable habitat and increasing conflict with burgeoning human populations, as well as poaching because of the value of their ivory tusks – are absolutely not addressed by however many are confined in North American or European zoos. An ex-situ population may entertain zoo-goers, thus generate profits for zoo owners, but it does not remedy what is endangering elephants in the wild, at all! If continuing in perpetuity the result of continuing to breed captive elephants will be domesticated elephants, diverging taxonomically from the wild prototype, but that’s about all that it will do.

As for “support” for “in situ” populations – those elephants who live where they naturally evolved and fit in — Gerth did not explain how captive elephants in Canada achieve that. By all means send money to Asian conservation groups, or wildlife law enforcement agencies fighting the proliferation of black-market ivory. Work toward limiting the demand for so many products that derive from the destruction of elephant habitat. But there is no way confining elephants in Cambridge can do that! Those elephants can’t work at border crossings to intercept black market trade in poached ivory. They do not figure out ways to protect south Asian crops from hungry wild elephants, thus protecting those elephants from retaliation. The whole idea that “conservation” is served by elephants confined in Cambridge, Ontario, is blatantly absurd!


Later in the proceedings, Senator Pierre J. Dalphond addressed a question to ALS, about the controversial planned sale to the Fort Worth Zoo of two young elephants, an eight-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, to be taken from their family at ALS, for a million dollars each, with a $200,000 bonus if one of them were to deliver a baby within a certain time frame. The Fort Worth zoo backed out under pressure from the public, upset at breaking up the family.

But there was no problem, according to Gerth, calling the sale part of a “managed conservation program”.

However, conservation isn’t served by producing a captive herd of elephants in North America, or anywhere else where they cannot join, and survive in, the wild population. And, it is not as if there is empty habitat waiting for the offspring of zoo animals to be placed into…that is not the problem. So, breeding in a Canadian zoo is not conservation. It is business.

I am not qualified to question Gerth’s assertion that the ALS bull in their possession was not a suitable candidate for breeding with the two young females, thus the need for the arranged mating in Texas, but I am qualified to say that it was not a conservation need, and may not have been an elephant need, since we are not elephant gods knowing if the trauma of family separation was worth the joys of motherhood in a strange place.

Trauma? The Senator asked if there would be emotional trauma for the young elephants if taken from the family group and shipped off to Texas.

“Sorry, what?” was the response.

The Senator repeated, “Emotional trauma or emotional consequences?”

Gerth required further clarification. “Do I think that there was going to be emotional trauma?”

“Yes” said the Senator.

Finally getting it, Gerth replied, “No.”

“You think there was no consequence for them?” asked the Senator.

“No” said Gerth.

Gerth’s reply came disconcertingly close to reminding me of Renee Descartes, the French philosopher who opined that animals, “…are simply machines and have no moral agency.”  It is not a view held by biologists who have devoted lifetimes observing elephants in the field. The reply also reminded me of livestock breeders who routinely move “heads” or “stock” around in service of economic interest, using animals as studs or breeders. In both cases there is no contribution to wildlife conservation or what the animal might choose, given the kind of choice denied by the whole process of captive breeding and domestication.

But then Senator Dalphond asked another question. After asserting that the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had, unlike its Canadian counterpart, Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) banned bullhooks to control elephants, he asked Ms. Gerth if these devices are used by ALS.

Bullhooks are rods with a hook on the tip, used to prod the most thin and tender parts of an elephant’s otherwise thick skin around the ears or eyes, or highly enervated locations such as the trunk or mouth. Mahoutsn Asia who use work elephants, and those who direct elephants in zoos, circuses, parades, ceremonies, or wherever the animals are expected to do things they’d otherwise prefer not to do, use these devices, also called a goad or ankus, to maintain dominance over such powerful animals.

I liken the compliance of the animals to something akin to variations of so-called Stockholm Syndrome. This is a mental phenomenon whereby abused people held captive – such as hostages or slaves – who might have the advantage of numbers over their respective captors, actually come to obey, even respect, their captors. Starting with elephant babies, you establish control and dominance that they grow up to think of as the norm, and pain and punishment are integral to letting them know who is in control.

Gerth answered, no. They don’t use bullhooks.  ALS uses guides.

If you have seen what they use, as I have, or look at photos taken at ALF you see that they use rods, with a hook on the end of it. A bullhook is a rod, with a hook on the end of it. Changing the name of an object does not change what it is. A fork is a fork even if I call it a baseball.

Captivity is good for you

Anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits to animals, or assuming animals respond to events as we would – is understandably frowned upon because one should not assume what one cannot prove. But at the risk of being called anthropomorphic I still am peeved over another exchange featuring an often-heard rationale for how casually we assume the “right” to imprison or otherwise dominate others – humans and non-humans alike.

In response to a question about whether elephants or great apes should or should not be kept in captivity – a question whose answer can only ever be subjectively reflective of personal values – Charlie Gray replied, in part, “I think one of the important things is that captivity or elephants in human care is an evolving thing.” Yes – although it might have been said that the evolution is slow and reluctant, with each concern raised by the humanitarian and conservation movement about elephant care being at first cavalierly dismissed by the zoo, aquarium, and circus industries.

He went on to say, “And I think a lot of the research that’s going on now reflects our current situation with elephants and our current practices and standards with elephants now. That’s proving to be that elephants in a lot of situations like this are doing very well. As evidence for that, our herd at African Lion Safari is multi-generational. They have sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers. It’s very rewarding for the elephants, and their life experience is much better than it has been in decades past in other traditional zoos.”

And that’s where my anthropomorphism again kicks in. What Gray said is dangerously close to the rationales once used in support of what was then a highly regarded, often church-endorsed institution: human slavery. The multi-generational nature of slavery, that saw sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers, and grandmothers over some 8 generations, is no longer thought to be an indicator that the folks enslaved found the experience to be “rewarding” in any way whatsoever. If we assume, as scientific research clearly indicates, that elephants are cognitive as the term is defined when applied to humans clearly shows to be true, what is different about them that makes a rationale no longer applied to humans, applicable to them? Is it simply that for all their ability to reason, learn, remember, and predict, and for all their social behavior, they are not as smart as we are – no wheels invented, no theory of relativity published, no machines constructed, or weapons made.  Is that all it is?

Such questions were never asked or answered.

The view that Asian Elephants are essentially reactive automatons, or simply childish creatures who only require basic needs, is countered by our knowledge of their neuroanatomy and that, like humans, they have a highly developed neocortex. Their brains have a greater volume of cerebral cortex, the part of the brain devoted to cognitive processing, than that of any other land animals. Asian Elephant behaviors that we associate with grief, learning, play, self-awareness, memory, and even altruism and language, have all been documented.

The assertion was made that captivity is not necessarily inherently cruel , but ex situ captivity so far from native habitat cannot replicate the conditions elephants evolved to experience.

Asian Elephants are large, complex, cognitive social beings. Referring to them, Gray said, “I think that we try our best to provide for their cognitive abilities, their social relationships, and their life experiences. That’s our goal.”

Um…no. The “goal” of ALS is to earn profit, as Ms. Gerth testified earlier, “African Lion Safari is a for-profit organization.” For millions of years before any of us came along, the world provided for elephants’ cognitive abilities, their social relationships, and their life experiences.  We were not, and are not needed by elephants except for one thing, to protect them from the greatest threat they face – us!  Teaching them at the point of a bullhook – oops sorry, guide – to be confined and do silly tricks is clearly not what they require.

Habitat and Enrichment

Senator Denise Batters, knowing that the Asian Elephant predominately evolved in tropical and subtropical climes, wondered about the climate, especially in winter.

No problem. It turns out that Asian Elephants love the cold, according to ALS. In fact, Gray assured her, the baby elephants, after a snowfall, are “…like kids on a snow day. They run and play, and they really love it.” He opined that successive generations of elephants seem increasingly to “…tolerate the cold days better and better.”

There can be no evolutionary adaptation to the cold in such a short time, and the physiology of the animals remains that of a tropical and subtropical species. A brief “playtime” does not compensate for a climate that the species evolved to inhabit.

Accepting, as I think she was quite wrong to do, that ALS has a “conservation” program, Senator Batters asked how it would be affected should Bill S-15 become law.

Gray replied that it was important for the elephants to be allowed to breed, which the bill could potentially end, because having offspring, “seeing a little sister”, is important. “That’s very enriching for our elephants, socially, emotionally, and physically, and to deny them that right, I think, would be damaging.”

At least he acknowledged that there might be some “rights” for elephants, if not freedom from making profits for the zoo industry. He acknowledged the animals have emotions.

But remember that exchange between Senator Dolphond and Trish Gerth? In addressing the removal of two young female elephants from their family so they could be bred to what was deemed to be the appropriate bull in far off Texas (not much chance to play in the snow down there!) Gerth had seemed to have trouble even comprehending the question. The senator repeated his concerns about “emotional trauma or emotional consequences” and Gerth still needed clarification. When assured that indeed, the senator did wonder about the emotional effect being taken from their family for the zoological equivalent of a forced marriage far south of the border, Gerth, finally understanding the concern, simply said, “No.”

Which is it? I wonder if the ability of elephants to experience emotional damage and the likelihood of them doing so when “managed” depends more upon the needs and interests of ALS and the international zoo community than the emotional interests of any elephant, and at any rate has zero to do with elephant conservation.

As a conservationist, a major concern I’ve increasingly had about zoos as a means of educating the public is that they inherently mispresent the complexity of the biosphere in many ways, including just how many species there are of any group of animals. Zoos, once they broke away from being mostly private menageries for the amusement of the rich minority, focused on paying their way by displaying what the public most wanted to see, the “charismatic megafauna” that draws, and entertains, the crowds. Thus people, generally unaware of the complexity and diversity of nature, are conditioned by zoos to think that a few plants (often not accessible to the animals) and a rubber ball for “enrichment” replicates the habitat those animals evolved to inhabit.

Charlie Gray said, “The elephants basically enrich themselves on our property.” I don’t know what that means but then he went on to say, “We have over 100 different species of native plants that they can choose to display their natural behaviours of foraging and feeding and things like that.” 

Canada, country-wide, has over 5,100 species of vascular plants, of which over 3,800 are native. Thailand, a small country compared to Canada, which I choose because it is close to being in the middle of the Asian Elephant’s native range, has at least 11,625 vascular plant species, none of which are native to Canada and almost none of which are found here. And while no wild elephant would access all Thai species of flora, or fauna, the point is what exists in Cambridge farmland is botanically and faunally impoverished compared to the extremely different and much more diverse environment of the homeland of ALS’s elephants’ ancestors.

“We do enrichment,” Gray explained, “as far as different methods of feeding them, of keeping them occupied with more or fewer toys that they can play with – logs and balls and things like that – but we try to make things as natural as possible for them.”

Of course, he did not say, nor was it asked, how long a part of any day the elephants were outside. In the wild they are out of doors 24 hours per day and are known to feed on more than one hundred plant species. They increase the amount of bark consumed in the dry season, less in the rainy season – but neither the trees involved, or the dry and rainy seasons, exist in places like Cambridge or Fort Worth.

Having known nothing else, captive born animals know no better, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking there is anything remotely natural about confinement. Wild bulls, upon adolescence, seek to isolate themselves from families to roam solitarily, which is not possible in zoos. Half to three quarters of the wild elephant’s day is given over to eating, none to learning to do stunts. Longevity and infant survival in the wild are, notwithstanding the hazards, greater than among captive elephants. Asian Elephants are classed as a crepuscular species, most active in the low light of morning and evening, and not when mid-day zoo visitors most want to be amused.

Conservation Where it Counts; Conflict Where it Occurs

Senator Marnie McBean got to what I think is the nub of the conservation issue with her question to Charlie Gray, “Is there any support to the wild population from the elephants that are being kept in captivity?”

Gray responded in a way that is all too familiar to me. He evoked what I think of as the “ambassador” justification, the idea being that the public generally only develops a concern for animals with whom they have had personal experience.

But I believe that imprisoned elephants, no longer are needed to serve a meaningful educational function, if they ever did, and are no longer needed to teach us how wonderful they are.

Gray said that the captive elephant allows, “…seeing an elephant, smelling an elephant, experiencing an elephant.” But, of course, the zoo elephant is not wild, not within the context of the environment in which it evolved. If anything, it takes from the elephant the very nature of its distinctiveness, making it no longer an exotic creature.

“So many conservationists that I know,” Gray continued, “had their first connection with an elephant in a zoo or safari park, and that made them care about elephants and made them want to be a conservationist.”

Most conservationists I know have been interested in nature from childhood, and care about biodiversity. They often dislike zoos. And they often were born and raised where elephants are native, not kept in barns at night or made to perform in arenas.

I have never been to Paris, but that does not mean I’d be indifferent to toppling the Eiffel Tower, the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral or the vandalizing of works of art in the Louvre. I have not been to Egypt but I am not indifferent to the fate of the Great Pyramid. David Attenborough takes us to where animals naturally live, not to zoos; Jane Goodall wanted to go to Africa, not have animals from Africa brought to her. Diane Fossey went to the gorillas in Rwanda, not the Bronx Zoo.

As ecologists and conservationists keep telling us, the main threat to species survival on continents is habitat deterioration. Increasingly our understanding is not simply that a given species depends upon “habitat” so much as that the species is the habitat, an integral part of an interactive co-dependence of life forms, climate, and geology that cannot be replicated by a field or barn or arena in Cambridge.

But Gray then went on to say that because elephants spend so much time foraging, “Where they don’t have to search for food, things are a lot easier for them.”

In fact, technologically supplied food leads to obesity and other issues related to enforced inactivity. Elephants are meant to move through the landscape, to be out not just at some point in the day, but all day.  It is what they evolved to do, and helps explain why wild elephants tend, if not shot, to live longer than zoo elephants. Obesity and various other conditions related to the boredom and inactivity of captive life plague a wide range of species when kept in zoos.

The chair offered her own question as to what the zoo was doing about the ivory trade, a serious impediment, obviously, to elephant conservation. The response indicated that nothing was being done that required elephants to be kept captive. Indeed, essentially the zoo supported various initiatives of the type that are spearheaded by organizations that keep no animals whatsoever.

And then the discussion veered into another area of particular interest to me, wildlife-human conflict resolution.

And that is where Gray evoked the second classic response every so familiar to me, the wildlife management community’s conviction that nature best functions when we show it what to do and, incidentally, too often blame the animals for the conflicts with them that we create.

Switching species, and continents, Gray said, “We do need to respect and recognize the countries in Africa where elephant populations are growing, like Botswana and Zambia and Zimbabwe and Kenya. People who have to live with elephants don’t view them the same way that we do, and they will need to manage elephants. Zoos can play an important role in that process.”

Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Namibia

First, Gray is wrong, and at best guilty of the “cherry picking” of data supporters of the bill have been accused of doing. There is a collation of countries – Kenya is not part of it, but it includes Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and Namibia, aided by China and Japan – that wants to, in effect, relax restrictions on ivory trade, but support ends moving north through the continent, where elephants are endangered and in decline, if not extirpated.

Three species, and several subspecies of elephant are currently recognized, and overall, they all are in very serious decline. Gray possibly switched from the Asian Elephant, the species kept by ALS, because he realizes that collectively the two African species outnumber the single Asian species by about ten to one, with conflicts between elephants and people arising in some southern regions. Even so, it has been estimated that the number of African Elephants overall has decreased by about 98 percent since about 1500, when best estimates put the number in Africa around 25 million.

The North African Elephant (Loxodonta africana pharaohensis) is extinct. That’s the famous Roman war elephant that, among many things, accompanied Hannibal over the Alps (although he personally rode an Asian Elephant of a subspecies that also became extinct). There are northern and central African nations have few or no wild elephants left.

But although all elephants have slow gestation periods and are, relative to most mammal species, slow to sexually mature, breeding is not and never has been the issue; never has been a need to breed elephants in captivity. When left alone with access to viable habitat their numbers can increase, albeit not as fast as human numbers, causing conflicts, particularly in the southern countries that Gray referenced.

It is a complex issue but there is no way a cassava farmer in Zimbabwe whose crop has been ruined by marauding African Elephants is going to be helped by Asian Elephants being on display in a zoo near Cambridge. To quote Dr. Dave Balfour of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC), African Elephant Specialist Group, “While the results of assessment place the continental population of Savannah Elephants in the Endangered category, it is important to keep in mind that at the site level, some subpopulations are thriving. For this reason, considerable caution and local knowledge are required when translating these results into policy.”

Local knowledge? I respectfully suggest that it is both arrogant and disingenuous to suggest that some unknown form of research on a different species of elephant that lives on a different continent provides what is needed to tell the experts where the problem is and what to do. All knowledge is of potential value, yes, but let us at least acknowledge what we already know, that elephants tend not to do well in captivity and that captivity has virtually no positive effect on conservation for most zoo species, and none for elephants.

The Asian Elephant is at even higher risk of extinction than the African Savannah Elephant, although the third species, the African Forest elephant, is critically endangered. About 95% of the estimated primal population of the African Forest Elephant has been killed off in about the last century, and it has been determined that poachers have killed off about 65% of the remaining population in just twelve years, and reduced their range by about 20 percent.

Despite the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo contains about 62 percent of Central Africa’s forests – the required habitat of the African Forest Elephant – less than 20% of the remaining African Forest Elephants live there. Poaching is the problem, and keeping Asian Elephants in zoos does not stop that. It is already illegal to import the ivory from these animals.

But let’s get back to the Asian Elephant, which is, after all, the species being confined at ALS. Numbers of them in the wild are harder to ascertain than is true of the African species, especially the African Savannah Elephant, but the IUCN estimates that the entire population of Asian Elephants is less than half of what it was just a century ago, now around 40,000 to 50,000 animals. They know how to breed; they don’t need to have zoo bred animals added to their numbers.  They need protection at the local level.

And such protection, actual conservation, can work. Charlie Gray’s opinion that African people don’t see elephants the way we do, whatever that is supposed to mean, certainly does not apply to people in India, where the government has published wild elephant population estimates annually since 1970, and in spite of a dense human population and subsequent conflicts between elephants and people – they sometimes eat the same food – the good news is that the population of elephants is growing, starting to turn around, as is the case of another very large Indian mammal, the Asian Rhinoceros. It has been estimated that India’s wild elephant population has gone from about 16,000 in 1980 to about 27,000 in 2017.


Ever since I attended the fifth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1981, in Gaborone, Botswana, a stronghold of the African Savannah Elephant, then and now, at a time before genetics showed us that the forest elephant was a different species, I have been concerned about elephant conservation. It is a specialized field, and I was honored to meet, through the years, various elephant experts. The challenges of conserving these magnificent animals are numerous and complex and I don’t pretend to be an expert. But I know that the problems they face are not to be solved by imprisoning them in places they did not evolve to inhabit.

There are relatively few successes in restoring endangered wildlife species by breeding them in captivity to restore them to the wild, and where they do happen, they usually do so in the places where those species belong, in situ, not ex situ. Our own successes in North America, to date, with Whooping Cranes, and the promising result of the California Condor breeding and release efforts, being examples.

But also, they tend to involve species who are less likely than some to suffer the effects of captivity. Black-footed Ferrets, Vancouver Marmots – they can, with care, be kept comfortable, and their instincts allow them to adapt back into the wild, provided there is viable habitat for them.

Most endangered species are never seen in any zoo. Those that are, are usually there because they attract visitors; they are the charismatic megafauna. ALS’s testimony reinforced my belief that elephants do not belong in zoos.  I urge support for Bill S-15.

Barry Kent MacKay
Ornithological artist, author
Co-founder and Director, Animal Alliance of Canada.
Co-founder and Director, Species Survival Network.
Co-founder and Director, Zoocheck,
Honorary Life Member, Pickering Naturalists,
Life Member, Ontario Ornithological Organization
Life Member, Wilson Ornithological Society