We have rarely written about zoos because they are simultaneously depressing and yet have had an important influence on most contributors to our pages. Thanks to the New York Times and Charles Siebert for this article raising questions about elephants in particular at the zoo:
Despite mounting evidence that elephants find captivity torturous, some American zoos still acquire them from Africa — aided by a tall tale about why they needed to leave home.
The “Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley” enclosure at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., is a dreamscape idyll of an elephant’s natural home: five and a half sprawling acres of tree-dotted mock savanna and a 550,000-gallon pond where boated people and wading pachyderms can nearly meet on opposite sides of a discreetly submerged barrier. All eight of the zoo’s elephants were visible when I visited on Memorial Day 2018, two years after the habitat’s grand opening, including six recent arrivals from the tiny southern African kingdom eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), the lot of them moving about with the same slow, tensile synchrony of larger wild elephant herds. Only the background flicker of cars on Interstate 235 disrupted the tableau, as well as my own occasional thoughts of far less accommodated zoo and circus elephant captives over the years, right back to the very first elephant brought to the United States.
According to historical records, it was in the early spring of 1796 that the America, a sailing vessel captained by Jacob Crowninshield, arrived in New York Harbor from Calcutta. As emphatically noted in the ship’s log kept by one of its officers, Nathaniel Hathorne (whose author son would soon add the “w” to the family name), there was an “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.” A 2-year-old female originally purchased by Crowninshield in Bengal for the bargain price of $450, she was immediately sold in New York for $10,000. It being nearly eight decades shy of the opening of the country’s first zoo, she would go on to spend the rest of her days on circuslike exhibition tours up and down the Eastern Seaboard (including a guest appearance at Harvard University’s 1797 commencement exercises), developing along the way a prodigious 30-bottle-a-day dark-beer habit, bottles that she learned to open with her own trunk. No one is sure what exactly became of the “Crowninshield Elephant.” But two centuries after her last recorded appearance — in York, Pa., in 1818 — the Sedgwick County Zoo’s “Zambezi River Valley” habitat seemed like something that pachyderm pioneer might have conjured in one of her wildest booze-stoked dreams.
From a viewing perch on the enclosure’s edge, I followed along a winding path, eventually arriving at an odd walk-through display: a large white metal travel crate with side air slats, its doors flung open at either end. Inside, a series of wood-framed, poster-size plaques related a compelling story of how and why — at a time when a recent census found that the population of African elephants had declined 30 percent in seven years, to a total of about 350,000 — the Sedgwick County Zoo, the Dallas Zoo and the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha were able to import 17 African elephants in March 2016 from what was then still Swaziland.
The exhibit describes an elephant-relocation operation, promoted as Room for Rhinos. Conservation managers in Swaziland determined that the increasing number of elephants in two of the country’s three Big Game Parks (B.G.P.) reserves were overtaxing the already drought-stricken landscape and posing a threat to the planned growth of their populations of both black and white rhinos. In response, the founder and executive director of B.G.P., Ted Reilly, decided to reduce the elephant population. Relocating them elsewhere in Africa was deemed, in the wording of the exhibit, “not feasible,” and thus Reilly declared that they would have to be slaughtered if alternate homes couldn’t be found. Enter the three zoos, which jointly issued the imperiled elephants “A Ticket to Safety” — those words hovering in boldface above a silhouette of the modified National Air Cargo Boeing 747-400 that on March 10, 2016, operating as Flight 805, spirited the Swaziland elephants toward their new homes.
Read the whole story here.