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Originally published Thursday, May 28, 2015 at 12:19 PM

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Chai and Bamboo are victims in a failed system

We cannot give elephants back what we’ve taken away from them — their extended families, native homes and natural lives.

Special to The Times


THE struggle to control the future of Bamboo and Chai, two elephants formerly at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, is apparently over. Passionate citizens, employees, lawyers, politicians and animal experts on both sides waged an exhausting battle that the zoo industry eventually won.

But whether Chai and Bamboo serve their time in a large enclosure at a sanctuary, or a smaller one with other elephants in a zoo, keeping elephants confined is not beneficial for these complex animals or helping save their species.

From the start, there was never a chance for Chai and Bamboo to be victorious. They lost a long, long time ago. Bamboo was kidnapped from her family in the wilds of Thailand. Chai was born there in captivity. Both were sold by animal dealers and shipped to North America to be put on public display. Each elephant has since spent every second of their lives caged. Although they are innocent, they are living out a life sentence.

For more than 100 years, the “keeping” of elephants has been a learn-as-you-go process, and none of us has mastered it. The world’s largest and most magnificent land mammal stands behind steel fences, cables, trenches and electrified wires in environments that could not be more different from those elephants are supremely adapted for. Unrelated elephants are placed into faux “multigenerational herds” (the latest zoo buzzword). Spaces for captive elephants are measured in tiny numbers of acres instead of hundreds of square miles. Elephants should be an important part of an ecosystem, not unemployed.

No matter how attentive and loving human caregivers are, captivity takes a physical and mental toll on elephants. Unnatural conditions can cripple elephants with arthritis at an early age. Many develop foot issues and other infections. Most captive elephants exhibit unnatural stereotypic movement behavior; they sway, rock and bounce their heads up and down — over and over and over. To keep their complex brains and massive bodies somewhat occupied, we suspend their food in nets, give them “toys,” or fill a plastic ball with food — but you can only fill the ball with food so many times before having to admit that something is terribly wrong.

The science of breeding elephants in captivity is peculiar, at best. Obtaining sperm from the bull requires arm-length rectal penetration by a technician to vigorously massage the prostate. The sperm is then deposited into the female with a 3-foot-long device. The Woodland Park Zoo artificially inseminated Chai in this way a reported 112 times. Her one calf died of a virus.

The zoo industry, led by its business trade group, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), takes credit for educating the public in North America about the plight of elephants in Asia and Africa. Yet, elephants are being poached at the alarming rate of nearly 100 per day. Habitat is being destroyed by expanding human populations, new construction, farming and roads that pierce elephants’ home ranges. Elephants languishing in zoos, circuses or sanctuaries have not slowed this destruction. In fact, it’s increasing.

There has never been an elephant born in a zoo or circus in North America who has been reintroduced to the wild. In fact, there is no plan to ever do so. Chai and Bamboo are not “ambassadors” for their wild counterparts — they are victims in a failed system.

Despite claims of improved care, there is no “state-of-the-art” facility for the incarceration of elephants. This includes sanctuaries. Even though sanctuaries provide far more space and natural environments, it is still not enough for elephants. Captivity can never be enough because we cannot give elephants back what we’ve taken away from them — their extended families, native homes and natural lives. Sadly, elephants in captivity are not really elephants.

Considering the serious drawbacks for the elephants themselves, it should be clear that captivity is wrong for these animals, no matter the justification. Perhaps Chai and Bamboo have taught us something after all: Captivity for elephants isn’t effective or fair.

Ed Stewart is the president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which operates three sanctuaries in California and cares for a variety of exotic and wild animals, including nine elephants.