Last Saturday, the Lahore Zoo announced the death of Suzi, the lone female African bush elephant. Animals die at zoos, it’s sad, but it happens and many a time it is out of ignorance and a lack of knowledge to create a natural environment for the well-being of the animals.
The death of Suzi is a tragedy by most definitions, just like the death of the giraffes at the Lahore Zoo. But instead of answering some pertinent questions, the authorities concerned are busy selling the idea to the general public that the elephant had already outlived her “usefulness.”
Nobody is talking about the fact that zoo elephants experience a host of physical and psychological ailments that are not observed among their free-living counterparts.
The visitors shall miss the swaying of her head, the occasional step backwards, the curling of her trunk, and the folding of her ears — gestures which were often misinterpreted for joyful behaviour but were actually signs of her feeling forlorn in her enclosure and yearning for companions. These compulsive and repetitive movements, often referred to as stereotypical behaviour by biologists, indicate the torrid time being experienced by elephants in captivity.
In Suzi’s case, devoid of company of a herd and confined to a small space for 29 long years could have been one of the reasons that led to deterioration of her condition — a point also reiterated by the former Director Lahore Zoo, Muhammad Shafqat.
Unsurprisingly, a solitary existence with no comfort or natural stimulation provided she was prone to develop the usual assortment of captivity-related diseases.
Scientific evidences suggest that being one of the most intelligent animal species, elephants have immensely complex social, psychological and physical needs which are hard to meet when kept in captivity. In the wild these animals are hard-wired to live in herds and even when born and raised in captivity they instinctively need the same kind of social interaction. The importance of social interactions on the health of captive elephants is highlighted in recent studies which reveal that by enriching their space, psychological disorders can be minimised in these mammals.
Dr Uzma Khan, Technical Advisor to World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan, argues that whereas social interaction is vital for the mental health of elephants in captivity, it should not be used as a tool to justify confining these animals to smaller spaces. “Elephants are migratory by nature,” she tells TNS. “They live in a social matriarchal group which comprises 5 to 15 adult females as well as young males. The degree of cohesion in these bonds may change over time leading to a division in the group and a confined space may exacerbate aggression.” She further said, “No zoo in the country houses an appropriate matriarchal group either because they cannot afford or do not have the space to do so.”
According to initial observations made by the Lahore zoo authorities Suzi’s death could have also resulted from abnormal weight gain that led to her experiencing difficulty in walking. With empirical evidence backing up the fact that all over the world captive elephants develop foot and weight related diseases due to lack of activity in limited space, the evidence is unmistakable what might have led to the death of Suzi. Findings of a report titled “Foot pressure distributions during walking in African elephants” published in the Royal Society Open Science Journal in 2016, indicates that African elephants held in captivity are more likely to develop debilitating foot disorders than their counterparts in the wild, which can seriously hamper their life span.
For an animal that is programmed to remain active for eighteen out of twenty-four hours a vast amount of space is required in order to maintain its health. Their constant activity and movement exercises maintain joints and ligaments, muscle tone, burns fat, and ensures good blood flow. It also creates constant shifts in exposure to varying landscapes and consequent inevitable richness in experiences and visual change.
As observed in Suzi’s enclosure at the Lahore Zoo, the constant treading on the same ground had resulted in the soil becoming hard-packed, making it uncomfortable for her to walk on; therefore, it could have resulted in her protracting a foot disease and consequently damaged various tissues. The possibility of Suzi falling prey to a foot infection cannot be ruled out given the fact that before calling it a night she was shackled in chains and made to stand on hard ground.
Khalid Ayaz Khan, Director General Wildlife Punjab, while responding to queries regarding the inadequate housing facility for an elephant exhibit at the Lahore zoo rejected the idea altogether. “Last month we called in experts from the UK for a training workshop on zoo keeping. The experts also visited the Lahore zoo and were satisfied with our facilities. Yes, they did recommend a few changes to a few enclosures and we will comply with their recommendations to bring the zoo at par with international standards.” He further said that a six member technical committee has been formed that will submit its recommendations on improving the animal keeping facilities with reference to the elephant enclosure.
The point is that there will always be a persisting challenge to improve conditions for captive mammals, which is why animal welfare guidelines and standards must be living documents and should be frequently updated. A lot is yet to be learned about the animals that keepers are already caring for, but higher-ups need to ensure that other than refining on how to keep animals captive, they should also acknowledge the fact that keeping them captive comes with risks to their safety and healthcare.
Suzi’s incident is indicative of a much larger problem — elephants do not thrive in captivity. As ironic as it may sound, Suzi’s death served as a reprieve for all the painful years she had spent in biting solitude.