As you may or may not know, Boo, a 59 year old Asian elephant was euthanized at the San Antonio Zoo recently. This is not an uncommon occurrence neither is it particularly common. It is however indicative of a school of thought concerning animal management that is finally changing. At one point, to be a zoo you had to have 3 things elephants, lions, and a camel ride. Everything after that was bonus points. Zoos over the years have evolved to become places of learning, conservation, and entertainment. To this end the management of the key players in the zoo, the animals, has developed from "keep 'em in a cage and feed 'em" to a broader approach to animal husbandry. Most zoos go to great lengths to keep their animals happy. Exhibits are designed by world renowned architects and landscape designers. Meals are formulated by dietitians as if for an Olympic athlete. The living environments themselves are meticulously cleaned and maintained by dedicated staff. And while all these aspects of the zoo world have evolved, the elephant management at some zoos has not.
Elephants need to be with other elephants. Period. A solitary elephant is not a good thing. Elephants are very big, very smart, and have lots of time on their hands (trunks, whatever). Imagine a 10 year old kid that weighs 4 ton and has a really long reach. Now, keep that kid happy for the next 40 years. That's what elephant managers have to do. That's why elephants need other elephants, ideally they would live in a matriarch-led herd or group with vast acreage to explore. There are simply some animals that we don't need to have in zoos. For them it's not a new, different place to live. They. are. being. held. captive. And I think they know.