Not so fast with the elephant birthday party.
Two days after Asian elephant Rose-Tu gave birth to a 300-pound baby girl at the Oregon Zoo—the third elephant born in captivity nationwide this year—The Seattle Times unleashed a devastating two-part investigative series charging that elephants are dying out in zoos, despite a coordinated strategy of aggressive breeding and crisis-management public relations to keep the crowd-pleasing "glamour beasts."
The stories, by Pulitzer-winning reporter Michael J. Berens, examine in disturbing detail how Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo bred a female elephant named Chai, first using a regimen of artificial insemination (the sperm was shipped by Greyhound bus from the Oregon Zoo) and then shipping her to a zoo in Missouri. But her daughter, named Hansa, died at age 6 in 2007 from a strain of elephant herpes—part of a pattern of young elephants perishing from disease in captivity.
The story raises serious questions about zoo policies about maintaining elephants, even as the Oregon Zoo continues to plan for a major expansion of its elephant exhibit—a project funded by voters in 2008.
The overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is a staggering 40 percent â nearly triple the rate in the Asian or African wild. Further, the same kind of virus that felled Hansa now has been found in a dozen zoos, as they circulated elephants around the country to try to breed much-desired offspring. The Times did a first-of-its-kind analysis of 390 elephant fatalities at accredited U.S. zoos for the past 50 years. It found that most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity, from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time. Of the 321 elephant deaths for which The Times had complete records, half were by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years. For every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die. At that rate, the 288 elephants inside 78 U.S. zoos could be "demographically extinct" within the next 50 years because there'll be too few fertile females left to breed, according to zoo-industry research.
Berens also shows how the public craze for baby elephants started in 1962 with an Asian elephant—an Oregon Zoo newborn named Packy.