People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia has just released a new report on Vishwamali (“Mali” for short), an elephant who was born in Sri Lanka in 1974 and was 3 years old when she was torn away from her family and shipped to the Manila Zoo.
Accompanying the report is the group’s heartfelt new TV public service announcement (PSA) that gives the public a glimpse of Mali’s life. Mali spends most of her time exhibiting repetitive behavior, which proves that she has literally gone insane from confinement. The PSA can also be viewed on the group’s Web site PETAAsiaPacific.com.
Confined to a barren, concrete enclosure where she lives alone, Mali exhibits all the classic signs of depression and psychological stress that are often seen in captive elephants. Even if her enclosure were to be doubled or tripled in size, it would still be completely inadequate. Adding more elephants to the Manila Zoo would not further the well-being of Mali—it would only increase profits. The Manila Zoo’s decrepit elephant enclosure cannot adequately house one elephant, let alone more than one.
PETA’s report concludes that Mali is suffering and that she will likely succumb to the life-threatening physical ailments that are common to elephants held in similar conditions. PETA is calling on the zoo to immediately relocate Mali to an accredited sanctuary, where she will enjoy the vital companionship of other elephants and roam and forage amid lush, natural vegetation.
In the wild, elephants such as Mali live and travel in close-knit matriarchal herds of related females, who roam up to 80 kilometers a day. Asian elephants have home ranges of between 25,000 and 60,000 hectares, but the entire Manila Zoo measures only 5.5 hectares. During PETA’s investigation for the report, a zoo worker revealed that when Mali is not on display, she spends most of her time in the small, dark concrete enclosure where she sleeps. In the wild, Mali would browse and graze; pluck fruit, leaves, and shoots from trees; take mud baths; and swim and play in the water. The Manila Zoo provides Mali with no opportunity to engage in any of the activities that elephants need for their physical, mental, and emotional health.
The report includes a letter from Carol Buckley, who has more than 35 years of professional experience in the care and management of Asian elephants and who operates The Elephant Sanctuary, which, at more than 1,000 hectares, is one of the largest rehabilitation and living center for former zoo and circus elephants in the world. Writes Buckley, “There can be no doubt that Mali’s undersized living space and isolation has had, and will continue to have, a severe negative impact on her physical and psychological health. More often than not, captive elephants are afflicted with painful and crippling illnesses that are directly related to lack of space and lead to drastically shortened life spans. It is likely that Mali is or will ultimately be afflicted with muscular-skeletal ailments, arthritis, and/or foot and joint diseases.” Buckley has offered to accept Mali at The Elephant Sanctuary.
Leading zoo industry organizations—including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in the U.S. and the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (ARAZPA)— require accredited facilities to provide a minimum of enrichment, including rocks, tree stumps, or large sturdy objects for rubbing against and scratching. Mali has none of these things, and her only form of enrichment is a small pool at the back of her enclosure. These organizations also recommend that elephants be kept on natural substrates as much as possible to keep their feet and toenails healthy and infection-free, but Mali’s entire enclosure is made of concrete.
Mali—like all elephants who are confined alone and denied everything that’s natural and important to them—is also suffering psychologically. The frustrations that captive elephants endure often lead to abnormal, neurotic, and even self-destructive behavior called “zoochosis” or “stereotypy.” As an example, Mali paces incessantly and has been observed standing in one spot with her trunk to the ground. She has also been seen walking to the edge of her tiny enclosure and reaching out her foot in the futile hope of going farther.
Visitors to zoos—especially children—never get a true glimpse of the natural behavior of elephants because the animals are often depressed and ill and rarely have the opportunity to display the intelligence, social skills, or wide range of emotions observed in elephants in natural settings. The decision to retire Mali to a sanctuary would not only be kind but also lifesaving. A recent study published in the Journal of Science found that zoo elephants lived only half as long as those who lived in more natural habitats. In addition to The Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park would be a suitable home for Mali.
A growing number of progressive zoos—including several in the U.S. and U.K.—have realized that they cannot possibly provide for the complex needs of elephants and have closed their elephant exhibits. Government officials in India recently mandated that all zoos move elephants to sanctuaries because it is widely recognized that zoos cannot adequately care for them. According to David Hancocks, former director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington, “[Elephants] are actually very poor candidates for life in captivity. … Their requirements are so substantial—it is probably beyond the capabilities of most zoos to even begin to resolve them.”
“Elephants in zoos everywhere suffer, but Mali’s situation in the Manila Zoo is one of the worst cases in the world,” says PETA Asia Director Jason Baker. “Instead of forcing her to live in misery and even face an early death, the Manila Zoo should immediately send Mali to a sanctuary where she can be with other elephants and live out her life in peace, health, and dignity.