November 8, 2008

Oregon animal law: With new bond funds, Oregon Zoo should expand space, not population

Oregon voters this week passed Measure 26-96, authorizing $125 million in new bonds for the Oregon Zoo. The zoo reportedly plans to spend the money on expanding the space available to its seven resident elephants from one and a half to six acres total. It will also make some improvements in conditions for polar bears, hippos, and primates.

Although any new space has to be seen as an improvement on the Zoo’s antiquated facilities, it’s still nowhere near enough. The Association of Sanctuaries’ Guidelines for Captive Elephants specifies a minimum of two acres per elephant. The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, offers the twenty-three elephants currently living there over 2700 acres.

It’s obvious that the Oregon Zoo can’t come close to that much room. What it can do, however, is stop its breeding programs. Consider the Zoo’s new elephant baby, “Samudra.” As he grows into being an adult bull elephant, he will become both more massive and more demanding than the female elephants sharing a space that will be too small even when fully expanded. Bull elephants are perhaps the most difficult and dangerous of animals to attempt to keep in captivity. If the Zoo will not relocate its elephants to sanctuaries, it should at least remove from its plans any notion that its new space gives it the freedom to add new animals.

The Zoo trumpets its breeding program’s births as evidence of success in elephant conservation. But information gathered by In Defense of Animals indicates that fifteen of the twenty-six elephants born at the Zoo are dead, and three of those still living are in Ringling Brothers Circus, which is currently awaiting trial over allegations of rampant animal cruelty directed toward elephants. Moreover, even if the Zoo breeds elephants successfully, such animals will never be released to the wild. Creating more elephants will thus only undermine whatever value may exist in the marginal space increase made possible by Measure 26-96. New elephants could be sent to other zoos, but at least thirteen of these have closed their elephant exhibits or announced plans to close them once animals die or are relocated to sanctuaries.

As the Oregon Humane Society noted in supporting 26-96, the Zoo must “either fund . . . critical improvements or find a new home for the elephants, polar bears and primates” it now houses under inhumane conditions. If new homes are either unavailable — or an unpopular idea given the Zoo’s status as Oregon’s largest paid tourist attraction — then the Zoo must commit to creating conditions that are as humane as possible. That means drawing the line at increasing the population.

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