Zoo Life Erodes Elephant Health, Study Finds

December 11, 2008 - Campus Bulletin

Female elephants living in protected populations in Africa and Asia live longer than those in captivity in European zoos, according to new research by an international team of scientists that includes a University of Guelph professor.

The study led by Guelph Prof. Georgia Mason was published in the Dec. 12 issue of Science, the world's leading journal of scientific research. Mason conducted the research with Ros Clubb, her former graduate student, and four other researchers from the United Kingdom and Kenya.

Following the paper's publication, news stories about Mason's research have appeared in more than 1,000 newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news reports around the world, including the New York Times, Time magazine, the Globe and Mail, National Geographic, New Scientist, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, CBC radio, ABC News, Discover magazine, Nature magazine, the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, Scientific American, Times of India and China Daily.

The findings could mark the end of a long-standing debate about the physical and mental well being of zoo elephants, and may also bring about improvements in how these animals are kept.

"This is the first animal welfare paper to get into Science," said Mason, who holds the Canada Research Chair in animal welfare in Guelph's Department of Animal and Poultry Science. She is also an associated faculty member in U of G's Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

"These kinds of questions often generate more heat than light, and our research shows what can be found out by analysing objective data. We hope it provides a model for tackling similar issues with other species," she said (Watch the Science Podcast featuring Prof. Mason).

Using data on more than 4,500 elephants, the researchers found empirical evidence that zoos cause shortened adult life spans in both African and Asian elephants. In the most endangered species of elephant, the Asian, calf death rates were also elevated.

For this species, the researchers found that being born into a zoo(rather than being imported from the wild), being moved between zoos, and the possible loss of their mothers, all put animals at particular risk.

The authors looked at data on female Asian and African elephants from Amboseli National Park in Kenya as well as the Myanma Timber Enterprise and compared them to data on elephants in European zoos to reach these conclusions. Combined with the widespread health and reproductive problems documented in zoo elephants, these findings suggest that they suffer from both mental and physical ailments.

The authors recommend screening all zoo elephants for signs of stress and obesity, in order to identify individuals that might be in trouble. Until these animals’ problems can be solved, the researchers also call for an end to the importation of elephants from their native countries, the minimizing of inter-zoo transfers, and suggest that breeding elephants should be restricted to those zoos that exhibit no harmful effects in their captive-born animals.

Mason joined U of G in 2004. She had spent the past two decades studying, teaching and advising on animal welfare issues in England — including 10 years as a lecturer and scientist at Oxford.

She has also done extensive research on the welfare of elephants and carnivores in zoos and mink on fur farms, focusing on how different species vary in their response to captive husbandry. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Nature and New Scientist.

Guelph's Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare was the first of its kind in North America and second in the world. It includes undergraduate and graduate teaching programs and research projects, as well as public lectures, seminars, and educational opportunities for people with a variety of interests in animal welfare.

For more information, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338/lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Barry Gunn, Ext. 56982/bagunn@uoguelph.ca

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