When Gregg Hudson visited Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, for a job interview in 2006, he knew it was time to do something about the African elephants.
In those days, the massive pair was living in a large mammal building dating back to the 1950s. Keepers would deliver food directly to the elephants and give them everything they needed as they stood around. “The holding situation met the standards, but it was subpar at best,” said Hudson. “It wasn’t anything you could be proud of.”
When he was hired as president and chief executive officer, elephants became a top priority. “We had 12 acres of property we could expand to in a very urban setting,” he said. “If we did this the right way, we could be an example of what an urban zoo could do to hold elephants.”
At the time, he recalls, there were limited studies on elephant welfare within Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited facilities. So, he hired consultants with experience studying elephants in the wild, and he spent time in European zoos, which were exhibiting elephants alongside other animals, such as giraffes, in more natural environments.
The result of that work is an exhibit called Giants of the Savanna, an 11-acre site that opened in 2010 as the first in the country to allow elephants, giraffes, zebras, impala and ostrich to share a habitat. Dotted with activity stations, wallows, and swimming holes, the space encourages natural behaviors. “We came up with a really simple slogan,” said Hudson. “It was ‘Let elephants be elephants.’”
The Dallas Zoo is in no way an anomaly. In fact, it’s representative of the way AZA-accredited zoos across the country have evolved—as have AZA standards—when it comes to elephant care. Those 1950s-style large mammal buildings and barns that were once common have now been replaced with acres of habitat inspired by rivers and savannahs, complete with mud wallows, sandy bowls, canals, and watering holes, along with enrichment features. Concrete floors—which were once common and often led to foot injuries in elephants—have given way to sand and natural substrates. And dozens of zoos have participated in studies to share best practices in elephant wellbeing and welfare.
To understand how zoos are leaning on science and elephant insights to inform exhibit designs, we talked with AZA members around the country. All of them have found meaning and motivation in that same slogan that motivated Hudson: Let elephants be elephants.
In 2016, Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., opened one of the largest elephant habitats in the country. The five-acre Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley Exhibit was modeled after a river-lined savanna in Africa, and informed by science—namely, a comprehensive study called Using Science to Understand Zoo Elephant Welfare, which was the first large-scale study of its kind, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and guided by a 27-member study team, including zoo professionals from AZA-accredited facilities.
The study affirmed that elephant welfare is at its best when their lives in zoos mimic lives in the wild, said Lauren Ripple, elephant manager at the Zoo. In the wild, they’re continually experiencing change. At Sedgwick County Zoo, feeders around the habitat go off at different times and locations, encouraging movement, investigation, and foraging behavior. In addition, Ripple said the team regularly switches out materials in the mud wallows so the animals feel different textures, and also moves logs around to mix things up. The multigenerational herd of eight elephants, which ranges in age from 11 to 51, can wander amid five acres of indoor and outdoor space, into a creek and a canal, and choose whether or not they want to participate in training sessions. “When they feel like they’re choosing what they get to participate in, it makes them feel more comfortable,” said Ripple.
To affirm that the elephants are all doing well, Ripple’s team relies on multiple indicators. First, their behavior: are they eating together, socializing, and behaving as a herd would in nature? Are they engaging with their environment, playing with one another, and using their enrichment? In addition, she said her team conducts hormone monitoring, evaluating things like cortisol to measure stress levels, and checking metabolic hormones such as glucose and insulin, to determine if they’re getting enough exercise.
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While it’s reassuring to have data that indicate the elephants are thriving, Ripple said she and her colleagues will continue working to enhance welfare and wellbeing. “We want to keep getting better and keep moving the community forward for these elephants.”
Birmingham Zoo in Birmingham, Ala., houses an all-male herd of African elephants. The reason: family groups push out young bachelors, and here, older males teach the younger males how to properly behave and socialize. At the same time, with the young bachelors relocated, breeding facilities have more space to continue breeding.
“There’s an important window there where an older male can serve as a mentor to teach the younger male,” said Hollie Colahan, deputy director at the Birmingham Zoo. Otherwise, the younger elephants could cause a lot of trouble. That’s what’s happened in Africa.
It was the 1990s in South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park. White rhinos were being killed. The culprit, it turned out, was a group of overly aggressive young male elephants living in the park as orphans, having been transferred from Kruger National Park. Without strong male role models, the younger bulls had no established hierarchical order or rules to keep their behavior in check, and researchers believe that could have contributed to the rhino deaths. It turns out, the best teacher for an elephant is another elephant.
In Birmingham, the teacher at the “bull school”—as some in the zoo community call it—is Bulwagi, the eldest of three resident bulls at age 41. With his mellow personality and large stature, Bulwagi puts younger males in their place and models proper behavior. Most recently, that was the case with a bull named Callee, who, at age ten, was pushed out by his family group. “Young males will be really pesky and annoying,” said Colahan. “A lot of times, they’ll come up and poke another animal with their tusks and push them around. An adult male will tell them to stop that.”
For eight years, Callee learned from Bulwagi, until the African Elephant Species Survival Plan® recommended that he move on. He joined a herd of female African elephants at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb. In January of 2022, Henry Doorly welcomed its first and second African elephant babies—both sired by Callee.
Elephants have been icons at The Tulsa Zoo in Tulsa, Okla., for decades. An Asian elephant named Gunda, who arrived at the Zoo in 1954, reached local-celebrity status over her six decades at the facility, before she died in 2018 at age 67. “She was our first elephant, and came as a calf,” said Joe Barkowski, vice president of animal conservation and science at the Zoo. “So, people connected. It wasn’t just them, it was their children, and then their grandchildren connected with that same elephant.”
Still, about ten years ago, staff at the Zoo faced an important decision: did they want to commit to having elephants in their care long-term? As it stood, the exhibit was “adequate” for its three elephants, said Barkowski. But if they ever were to expand the herd, they would need more space, more staff, and more resources. After much discussion, the pros of having elephants outweighed the cons. “And that’s when we said we are going to make a major commitment to elephants moving forward,” said Barkowski.
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After years of fundraising as a part of the Zoo’s capital campaign, ground broke on the Oxley Family Elephant Experience and Elephant Preserve in June of 2022. At the time, Tulsa Zoo President and Chief Executive Officer, Lindsay Hutchison, said in a statement, “We believe the new Oxley Family Elephant Experience and Elephant Preserve is going to change the way people view elephant care by allowing us to meet the individual physical, mental, medical, and social needs of our elephants.”
The plans for the new preserve, which will be one of the largest AZA facilities of its kind in North America, are driven by insights from elephant research and evolving husbandry standards. It will include 13 acres of space for the elephants, with access to a natural pond and ten acres of wilderness to roam. A 36,000-square-foot barn will have natural substrate floors; and enrichment opportunities and timed feeders will keep the atmosphere dynamic.
At this time, the Zoo has three geriatric Asian elephants, all in their 50s. Barkowski said that when the space is complete, he hopes to welcome more. The preserve is designed for flexibility, so that different age groups and sexes will be welcome. “We want to be able to have a multigenerational herd, which we all agree is the way we need to manage elephants going forward.”
In addition, that flexibility will allow the Zoo to evolve as understanding of elephants deepens, as it inevitably will. After all, zoos and aquariums are steeped in science, and will always be looking to do better.
“When we think we know everything, we’re doing a disservice to everyone: our animals, our guests, our colleagues, our staff—and ourselves,” said Barkowski.
Hero Photo Credit: Sedgwick County Zoo/Lou Alexander
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.