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“What’s an elephant mummy?”

By: , Posted on: November 5, 2020

There is nothing quite like entering an elephant house; it’s distinctive smell, the sound of deep rumbles and violent exhalations, the rattle of steel gates and glimpses of young calves weaving their way between adult legs. In the United Kingdom the road sign for a zoo contains an outline of an elephant. Imagine how disappointed the children visiting most zoos must be when they find that their destination keeps no elephants now and may never have kept elephants. 

Zoos that once extolled the keeping of elephants have been moving their animals to elephant sanctuaries and repurposing their elephant houses to accommodate other species. In contrast, others have been investing eye-watering amounts of money in new elephant facilities because they believe that elephants kept in zoos have an educational and conservation value. But is this true?


“In my new book I have attempted to draw together what we know about elephants living in captivity…most other serious books about elephants concentrate almost exclusively on what we know about the ecology and behaviour of wild elephants.”

There is no substantive evidence in the academic literature that the keeping of elephants in zoos has any measurable education value and only a handful of studies have attempted to examine this. Nevertheless scientists (often zoo professionals) repeatedly claim an educational value for zoo elephants citing other authors who have simply said the same thing. There are very few elephants kept by the world’s zoos compared with the numbers remaining in the wild. They reproduce well in the wild but not in captivity. Elephants in zoos are essentially an historical relic population. If we did not already keep elephants in zoos, would anyone now seriously countenance taking hundreds of them from the wild in Africa and Asia, shipping them to zoos in Europe and North America and attempting to breed them with a view to (maybe) saving the species for posterity? I seems unthinkable to me.

There is, of course, another aspect to the justification of keeping elephants in zoos, namely that they help us to understand elephant biology and some of the knowledge gained could help with in-situ conservation efforts. This is true, but whether this is a sufficient reason to continue to keep elephants in zoos is debatable. Elephants in other captive environments have made interesting contributions to science and human health. African elephants have taught us that they can detect explosives and elephants in Thailand have been used as therapy for autistic children.

In my new book I have attempted to draw together what we know about elephants living in captivity. This has never been attempted before; most other serious books about elephants concentrate almost exclusively on what we know about the ecology and behaviour of wild elephants. Elephants Under Human Care is about elephants living in zoos, circuses, logging camps and those working in the tourism industry. It considers their behaviour, ecology, population dynamics, welfare and conservation role, along with the ethics of keeping elephants in captivity and recent changes to the laws affecting captive elephants. The book contains many photographs and illustrations, most of which have not previously been published, and some of which show behaviours that have not been documented elsewhere, including social behaviours and tool use. In addition to reviewing the academic literature the book also contains some of my original unpublished research.

When I worked as an elephant keeper at a British zoo over four decades ago, we chained the elephants to the floor of the elephant house at night and they remained chained for perhaps 16 hours in every 24. At the time I did not give it much thought; it was the practice of the day. Chaining elephants for long periods is unacceptable now and zoos are moving towards having less contact between keepers and animals and, in some cases, 24-hour access to outdoor accommodation.

Some years ago a reviewer of one of my papers noted that I appeared to be ambivalent about the keeping of elephants in zoos. That was true then and it is still true now. I could make an argument for keeping elephants in zoos and a contrary argument for ceasing the practice.

When I was a small boy in the 1950s, I loved going to the zoo to see the elephants. I still do, and so does my three-year-old grandson. The other day he asked me why elephants are my favourite animal and why it isn’t tigers. I could not answer his question properly, but it cannot be unrelated to the fact that I saw my first elephants in a zoo at around his age. If the population of elephants living in zoos continues to decline it may not be very long before small children are no longer able to see, smell and hear elephants at close quarters. It may not be long before children ask, “What’s an elephant mummy?” Does this really matter? Well, I used to be uncertain; now I’m just not sure.  I hope this book will help anyone interested consider both sides of the argument and make up their own mind.

Ready to read the book?

Elephants under Human Care: The Behaviour, Ecology, and Welfare of Elephants in Captivity is a valuable resource for zoo biology and animal welfare researchers. It is also useful for students and zoo professionals and managers looking for a comprehensive guide to current research on captive elephants. Elephants under Human Care: The Behaviour, Ecology, and Welfare of Elephants in Captivity is available now on ScienceDirect. Or purchase your own copy from the bookstore and save 30% + get free shipping with promo code STC30.

About the author

Paul A. Rees was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Science, Engineering and Environment at the University of Salford, in the United Kingdom, until his retirement in 2020. He has taught at various levels for nearly four decades. In 2002, he introduced Wildlife Programmes at Salford and in 2005 established the first undergraduate programme in the UK focusing on zoo biology. His research interests include the behaviour and welfare of animals in zoos, especially elephants, the ecology and behaviour of mammals, biological education and wildlife law. In addition to authoring a number of books, including An Introduction to Zoo Biology and Management (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Dictionary of Zoo Biology and Animal Management (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), Studying Captive Animals (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015) and Examining Ecology (Elsevier, 2018), he also once worked as an elephant keeper.

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