Circus Act

A recent list of America's 10 worst zoos for elephants had two Massachusetts entries. That's right—charges of animal mistreatment in the progressive hotbed of America. What's going on here?

Photograph by Robert E. Klein

Photograph by Robert E. Klein

Back at the gala for the Buttonwood zoo, donors are lining up at the carousel for photos with Emily and Ruth, eager to finagle family pictures for the annual Christmas card. The grand prize of the zoo’s raffle is the chance to have lunch with the elephants; second prize is a work of art by Ruth — green and brown paint strokes on a framed canvas. By nightfall, everyone is picking out their photos from dozens of shots of the elephants standing with smiling, sunburned visitors in polo shirts and cocktail dresses.

Meanwhile, William Langbauer, a genial, stout 57-year-old zoologist whom everyone calls “Dr. Bill,” is holding court. Langbauer, who’s been Buttonwood’s zoo director since 2008, holds a Ph.D. from Boston University, has done pioneering research in elephant communication, and is currently working with the South African National Parks Board to study elephant family behavior. He speaks with pride about the care his staff provides to Emily and Ruth. And he sees no conflicts among the various elements of the zoo’s mission. “Conservation and entertainment are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they go hand in hand,” Langbauer says. “The single most important factor in determining whether an adult supports conservation efforts is whether he experiences a ‘wow factor’ as a kid.” And nothing wows the crowds quite like elephants.

The problem, though, is that elephants — especially females — are used to living in large groups. In fact, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits American zoos, strongly recommends that any elephant exhibits or renovations be big enough to accommodate at least three of the animals. And that, in a roundabout way, is proving to be tricky for Buttonwood. If anything were to happen to either Emily or Ruth — who have each already surpassed the average life expectancy for Asian elephants — the survivor would live out her years on her own, which would violate AZA recommendations. So as part of a long-term master plan, Langbauer and the zoo want to renovate and expand the elephant exhibit by taking four acres of land from the adjoining Buttonwood Park and creating a space that would accommodate three elephants — and maybe even tigers and snow monkeys, too.

The project, which could cost anywhere from $7 to $24 million depending on who you’re asking, aims to maintain Buttonwood’s good standing with the AZA, and to keep visitors stoked. Ironically enough, however, it is this very plan to drastically increase the space for Buttonwood’s elephants that has drawn the ire of animal rights activists. “It is nonsensical for Buttonwood to expand so that its elephant exhibit will take up nearly half the zoo,” says Catherine Doyle, director of IDA’s Elephant Campaign, which pressures zoos to stop keeping and breeding elephants in captivity. “They’re going to get stuck in a perpetual cycle of trying to replace elephants.” There’s also the fact that a lot of folks in New Bedford aren’t exactly eager to swap public park land for more elephants at the zoo.

As wacky as the activists can sometimes be — In Defense of Animals would like you to identify yourself as the “guardian” of your dog, not his owner — they get one very fundamental thing right: When it comes to elephants, good care can’t overcome the living conditions. In nature, elephants form complex, matriarchal societies. Mothers, sisters, and female aunts and cousins stay together as tight-knit families, typically moving, feeding, and raising offspring as a unit, while males peel off into looser affiliations and solitary roles after reaching adulthood. When a family is together, the oldest female decides when everyone will eat and drink, which clans to socialize with, and when to move on. But elephant families are also capable of splitting up to deal with difficult tasks, like finding food when it’s scarce, while still staying in touch through distinctive low-frequency calls and rumbles that can travel for more than two miles.

Language, prodigious memory, empathy, teamwork: As scientists have started to study the elephant’s brain, it turns out there’s some neurological basis for these traits, as well as for elephants’ comparatively poor performance on some standard tests for intelligence, such as using tools or distinguishing among visual images. As a huge herbivore, the elephant didn’t need to evolve the quick-thinking skills of animals that have to, say, outsmart or fight off cheetahs. But as a traveling social beast, it did need to develop the capacity to remember family, friends, rivals, and places over large stretches of time. In 2008, three researchers from the University of California at Davis described the higher-function anatomy of the elephant, pointing to its 10 billion loosely packed cortical neurons:
“[Elephants] seem to excel in long-term, extensive spatial-temporal and social memory.” In other words, compared with other nonhumans, elephants think with a little less speed, but a lot more memory.

At birth, elephants have brains that are just 50 percent, on average, of their adult size (humans’ are even lower, at 25 percent). One reason elephants stay so close to their families as they age is because, like us, they have so much more mental growing up to do. The elephant brain also has a large hippocampus — strongly related to both memory and emotion in humans — which could provide a neurobiological basis for what some researchers call PTSD-like symptoms.

The harsh reality of elephants living in captivity is that there is nobody else for them to exchange infrasound rumbles with, mate with, mother, or nuzzle. And there’s not much room for them to ramble, meander, or explore. Captivity itself stops them from doing the things that are most central to being an elephant.

And at a zoo, elephants can’t exactly choose their herdmates. Emily and Ruth, for example, don’t always play nice. Emily has attacked Ruth on several occasions, sometimes hitting her hard enough to leave marks. In January, staffers noticed two marks on Ruth’s side and concluded that they might be from Emily’s tusks. The next day, the keepers heard Ruth call out, and found that Emily had apparently hit Ruth from behind. At night, the two elephants are kept separated by a sturdy steel cable.

Recent developments in the understanding of elephants have tended to strengthen rather than undermine the sense of duty zookeepers feel. “There is human-centric anthropomorphism, where if you don’t like something, you think an animal won’t like it,” Langbauer says. “But there’s also animal-centric anthropomorphism, where you put yourself in an animal’s feelings. When Monty Roberts [the “horse whisperer”] gets a horse to follow him into a trailer, it’s because he knows what he’s doing. The person who says, ‘Don’t put that bit into the horse’s mouth because it might hurt’ doesn’t know. Elephants are social, affectionate animals, and I have spent the past 30 years getting closer to them than most people.”

Langbauer is one of the three researchers who discovered that elephants use low-frequency, long-distance calls, but he maintains that the animals he stewards don’t need enormous roaming areas. “Most elephants go on the move because they’re seeking shade, food, or water,” he says. “Provided those resources, they only need to walk a couple of miles a day.”

So how much territory is required for that much walking? “You can give elephants an attractive place to do that within three or four acres,” Langbauer replies.

And how much space do the Buttonwood elephants have now? “A little less than an acre,” he says. “We’re trying to expand that.”


Humans are on their way toward making it unsafe for elephants to live anywhere on earth. Poaching and habitat destruction have decimated populations. So you can understand how zookeepers have come to feel they are the last, best hope for giving elephants a good life.

“Look at the dolphins that were trained by the Navy,” says Langbauer. “After they were released, they came back to hang around where they used to work. Why? Because they got free food and were doing interesting things. A zoo can provide just as good an environment as the wild. For the elephants here, there’s no lions, no anthrax, no drought.”

But, in fact, elephants tend to actually fare worse in zoos. Much worse. From herpes and tuberculosis to infertility and infanticide, elephants have all kinds of problems in captivity. Overall, female Asian elephants in the Burmese logging industry typically live for 41.7 years, but for just 18.9 years in captivity, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2008. The researchers also found that wild-born Asian elephants have a significantly better chance of living to adulthood than ones born in zoos. And that transferring Asian elephants from zoo to zoo reduces their chances for survival. And that separating calves from mothers does, too. And that female African elephants that die natural deaths have a median life span of 56 years, compared with only 16.9 years at zoos. Their conclusion: “Bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability.”

Some zoos have concluded that it’s best to return elephants to natural but protected conditions, such as noncommercial sanctuaries. The Detroit Zoo made headlines in 2004 when it announced it would voluntarily send its two aging elephants, Wanda and Winky (both of whom suffered from arthritis), to ARK 2000, a sanctuary that is part of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in San Andreas, California. At that time, Ron Kagan, the zoo’s executive director, said, “Just as polar bears don’t thrive in a hot climate, Asian elephants shouldn’t live in small groups without many acres to roam…. They clearly shouldn’t have to suffer the winters of the North.”

And since then, a number of other facilities, including zoos in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have sent elephants to sanctuaries.

In New Bedford, a task force Mayor Scott Lang set up to study Buttonwood’s proposed master plan to expand the zoo’s territory and elephant exhibit met for the first time in February. Jane Gonsalves, a city councilor and chair of the group, said she hoped their work would not “be all about the elephants.” In April, the task force recommended allowing the zoo to expand, but only by three of the four acres it has asked for — meaning that even if the proposal goes through, the elephants will still have limited space.

Buttonwood may provide the best care and as much love as it can to its elephants, but might it be best to protect future elephants from the clashes and compromises of captivity? Should the zoo focus on New England animals and simply let Emily and Ruth be the last of their kind it keeps — or even send them to a sanctuary now?

“Why would we do that?” Langbauer asks.