Zoo Knoxville’s Elephant in the Room

In Cover Stories by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Among the many changes Zoo Knoxville has planned, one major change it has rejected is getting rid of elephants. The animals are highly popular with zoo visitors, but their social and physical needs are tough to meet in captivity.

The Knoxville Zoo became the first in the Western hemisphere to successfully breed African elephants in 1978. But it never attempted to breed its current group of three elephants, even though they were initially the appropriate age to do so.

In recent years, standards for elephants have changed as zoos recognize that the animals, which live in herds and may walk more than 50 miles a day in the wild, need to be kept in larger groups and larger spaces. Zoos in Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago have closed their elephant exhibits after public criticism.

“Elephants have been the poster child for animal welfare issues,” says Zoo Knoxville veterinarian and University of Tennessee professor Edward Ramsay. He notes that elephants are one of the few species that has a shorter life expectancy in captivity. He compares how much space Zoo Knoxville gorillas and elephants have, relative to their size, but adds that giving the same type of space to a herd of 5,000-pound animals is difficult in any city.

The way humans interact with elephants is a contentious point. Many keepers prefer “free contact,” which allows them in the same space with the elephant, using a large hook called an ankus to move the elephant around. Almost all keepers killed by elephants were using free contact, which animal activists decry as inhumane to the animals.

Many zoos have switched to “protected contact,” which physically separates keepers from elephants. Zoo Knoxville followed suit after elephant keeper Stephanie James was killed in 2011 when an elephant crushed her against a stall. Based on witness interviews, the subsequent Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency investigation report called the elephant’s actions “deliberate.” However, Captain Walter Cook, TWRA Captive Wildlife Coordinator, calls the incident a “tragic accident” and says, “The animal did not intend to hurt Stephanie.”

Still, the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the zoo $9,000 for not placing the elephant in “protected contact” earlier, after a trainer was injured when the same animal knocked her down and pinned her to the ground.

The keeper’s death did not trigger the local protests other zoos have seen in similar circumstances. “The community rallied behind us,” says Zoo director Lisa New. (She says people’s main concern was that the elephant not be punished, which it wasn’t.)

But a National Geographic article posted online in 2013 that featured an interview with the zoo’s curator of elephants, Jim Naelitz, provoked outrage among many readers, including other zoo professionals and biologists. (For example, Naelitz said that working with elephants is not a dangerous profession, without mentioning the recent keeper death at his zoo.)

The escalating requirements for elephant care led New to evaluate the long-term feasibility of keeping them.

“We decided elephants are important to our visitors and our board and they have a future here,” New says, adding that the zoo’s master plan calls for eventually expanding the space for elephants.

Complications may develop if the male elephant, Tonka, is moved to another zoo for breeding. That would leave Zoo Knoxville with fewer than three elephants, which is the new standard of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Its website states that, starting this September, it will allow no variances from the three-animal requirement, but New says she thinks Zoo Knoxville might be able to get a waiver for any periods when Tonka is breeding. Decisions about breeding and the movement of animals among zoos are made at the national level as part of a species survival plan that tries to protect species from extinction by maintaining genetically diverse populations in zoos.

See Also: 

• Zoo Knoxville Unleashes a New Branding Campaign and an Ambitious Expansion Plan to Double Attendance

• Who Regulates Zoo Knoxville?

Photo Story: Monkeyin’ Around at Zoo Knoxville

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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