Oakland Zoo Contributes to Newly Published Collection of Scientific Research on Zoo Elephant Welfare, Care

Share Article

Oakland Zoo’s elephant program contributed to a special collection of peer-reviewed scientific research articles resulting from a comprehensive study on North American zoo elephant welfare.

Photo by Gina Kinzley

Oakland Zoo is committed to continuously improving the lives of elephants, a sensitive, highly intelligent, sentient, and complex being - Gina Kinzley, Co-Lead Elephant Manager at Oakland Zoo

Oakland Zoo’s elephant program contributed to a special collection of peer-reviewed scientific research articles resulting from a comprehensive study on North American zoo elephant welfare.

The collection is available today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. It includes nine research papers, an overview and formal commentary explaining the significance of the work and its importance to better understand and enhance zoo elephant welfare.

“Oakland Zoo applauds AZA for taking on such a massive institutional study to work on improving the livelihood of elephants in captivity. Being involved in elephant research and data collection in and out of the field for twenty years, Oakland Zoo is committed to continuously improving the lives of elephants, a sensitive, highly intelligent, sentient, and complex being. We understand that the more we learn about this species in the wild and in captivity, we can manage them appropriately to encourage species typical behaviors. This study is one step toward that goal,” said Gina Kinzley, Co-Lead Elephant Manager at Oakland Zoo.

This is the first and only multi-institution study to comprehensively identify and measure variables that significantly contribute to North American zoo elephant welfare, thus allowing science to inform management practices, according to Anne Baker, Ph.D., one of several principal investigators of the project. “Many AZA-accredited zoos are already using knowledge we’ve learned from the research to improve the welfare of their elephants.”

The collection, titled Epidemiological Investigations of North American Zoo Elephant Welfare, is available online and is accessible to the public. (See journals.plos.org)

The research is the outcome of work by a 27-member study team, which includes independent consultants, zoo professionals, and faculty from three universities. The study was funded by an $800,000 leadership grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded to the Honolulu Zoo Society and administered by Kathy Carlstead, Ph.D. Team members and dozens of research assistants from widely varied disciplines developed quantitative measures to assess multiple elephant-welfare indicators as well as a large variety of housing and management practices.

“Zoo elephant welfare is a topic of public interest, but the lack of available data on this specific population made it difficult to differentiate fact from opinion, ” said Cheryl Meehan, Ph.D., the study’s consulting project manager and director of AWARE Institute, in Portland, OR. “The collection provides a scientific perspective on a number of issues that are important to the conversation about elephants in zoos, and it is forward-looking as a resource that can help shape and inform the future of elephant care.”

The collection resulted from a comprehensive study analyzing the daily lives of 255 Asian and African elephants in 68 North American zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Data were collected in 2012 and preliminary results presented at AZA conferences in 2013 and 2014. Research focused on factors related to the wellbeing of elephants that can be scientifically observed, measured, and analyzed, including: behavior, body condition, foot and joint health, female reproductive function, and walking distance – Oakland Zoo's elephants were also part of the behavior studies which measured: stereotypic behavior performance, walking distances and recumbence behavior. Nearly 96 percent of North American AZA-accredited zoos with elephants participated in the study.

Results showed that the elephants’ social lives play the biggest role in supporting behavioral health. For example, primary importance is for elephants to spend time in groups, and not be socially isolated. Human care takers also can play an important role in an elephant’s social life through husbandry, training and interactive sessions. Although space is often linked to welfare in public discussions about elephants in zoos, researchers did not find evidence that the amount of enclosure space supports greater amounts of walking, decreased stereotypic behavior, improved body condition, or better foot and joint health.

The study did find that the quality of the space and management practices is important to elephant welfare. For example, the research demonstrated that decreased time spent on hard flooring significantly reduced the risk of foot and joint problems, which were found to be important health concerns for the population.

And the research team discovered a previously unknown link between the quality of enrichment and feeding programs and female reproductive health. This result indicates that day-to-day management practices could be an important tool in addressing the reproductive issues that are particularly common among female African elephants.
“This groundbreaking approach provides a model for measuring welfare in managed animal populations with the potential to conduct similar studies to benefit many different species cared for in zoos and aquariums,” said Meehan. “And this research can be extended to inform elephant conservation efforts given that only a minority of free-ranging elephants exists in large undisturbed protected areas, while many “wild” elephants are managed in small reserves.”

The Bay Area's award-winning Oakland Zoo is home to more than 660 native and exotic animals. The Zoo offers many educational programs and kid's activities perfect for science field trips, family day trips and exciting birthday parties. Oakland Zoo is dedicated to the humane treatment of animals and wildlife conservation onsite and worldwide; with 25¢ from each ticket donated to support conservation partners and programs around the world. The California Trail, a transformational project that more than doubles our size, opens in 2018, and will further our commitment to animal care, education, and conservation with a focus on this state’s remarkable native wildlife. Nestled in the Oakland Hills, in 500-acre Knowland Park, the Zoo is located at 9777 Golf Links Road, off Highway 580. The East Bay Zoological Society (Oakland Zoo) is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization supported in part by members, contributions, the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks. For more information, go to: http://www.oaklandzoo.org

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Erin Harrison
Oakland Zoo
+1 510-632-9525 Ext: 135
Email >
Visit website