Local animal rights organizations plan to protest outside the Oregon Zoo this weekend in an effort to convince veteran folk act the Indigo Girls to cancel a scheduled concert there Saturday night.

Care2, Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants (FOZE) and Portland Animal Save claim the zoo's annual summer concert series—held in an amphitheater near the elephant enclosure—is damaging to the elephants, who have highly sensitive hearing. The groups also oppose the zoo's elephant breeding program and they allege general mistreatment of the animals.

Though the concert series goes on for three months and features dozens of artists, the organizers of the protest say they singled out the Indigo Girls because the duo seems the most likely to be sympathetic to their cause.

"I grew up with the Indigo Girls, and they have a message of tranquility and peace and that should extend to animals as well," says Rebecca Gerber, senior director of advocacy for Care2, a national online advocacy group. "We're targeting them because we care so much about them and their music and they could really be leaders."

Care2 partnered with FOZE to circulate a petition asking the Indigo Girls to cancel their concert at the zoo on June 15. It collected 103,000 signatures.

According to the petition, not only elephants hear sounds up to six miles away, they also hear with infrasonic sound through their feet. With concerts taking place just yards from the Elephant Lands exhibit, the elephants are enduring a "bombardment with noise" that they cannot escape.

But representatives from the Oregon Zoo says the elephants do have places to go if the noise bothers them—and often, they choose to stay within range of the music.

Juvenile Asian elephant Samudra in the pool at Elephant Lands. IMAGE: Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.
Juvenile Asian elephant Samudra in the pool at Elephant Lands. IMAGE: Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.

"Elephant Lands is big—it takes up about a tenth of the zoo's total acreage, almost the entire eastern side—and one portion of it is located near the concert area," writes zoo spokesperson Kelsey Wallace in an email. "The elephants are able to choose for themselves which part of the habitat they want to be in—indoors or out, east or west….A lot of times they do choose to be up near the music, but it's really up to them."

Wallace adds that the zoo conducts regular studies on elephant hearing, and the decibel levels from the concerts pales in comparison to the sounds elephants make themselves.

"Elephants have been measured to vocalize in the infrasonic range, at levels up to 117 dB for an African elephant and 95 dB for an Asian elephant," Wallace says. "These loud calls are produced by a single animal. When a group of elephants is rumbling, roaring, trumpeting, and squeaking it is much louder and yet they often stay close together vocalizing very loudly. If this were hard on their hearing, or even uncomfortable, we would expect them to soften their calls or move away from the loudness of others."

But FOZE president Courtney Scott says the concert issue is just one part of a broader campaign against the zoo's treatment of elephants.

"The basic thing we want to get across is the end of the breeding program," Scott says. "Twenty-one of 28 elephants born at the zoo are dead. That's not a successful breeding program."

FOZE and Care2 protested outside the zoo last December, following the sudden death of Lily, a 6-year-old Asian elephant, due to complications from endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV.

FOZE also wants the zoo to stop importing elephants into the facility, and to release Chendra, a Borneo pygmy elephant who is blind in one eye, to a sanctuary.

Scott says the hope is that by persuading the Indigo Girls to cancel the concert, it will cause more acts to do the same, and bring awareness to the other issues involving the zoo and its elephant population.

Representatives for the Indigo Girls did not immediately return a request for comment.