People, Environment

Socializing More Important to Zoo Elephants Than Space

Socializing More Important to Zoo Elephants Than SpaceSocializing More Important to Zoo Elephants Than Space

One of the longstanding debates in the scientific community is whether or not limited space in zoos is actually harming the animals, particularly elephants.

These gentle, highly intelligent giants, which are used to roaming around the wild, are commonly affected by obesity, shortened lives and infertility, experts say.

Indeed, one might think that given the animals’ large size, the extent of the zoo’s enclosure may influence their quality of life. Some advocates even say elephants have no place in zoos at all.

However, a large-scale first-of-its-kind collaboration of scientists who attempted to find out how captivity affects the situation of elephants in zoos has found surprising results, Tech Times reported.

In the new study, more than two dozen experts collected and evaluated data on 255 elephants in 68 North American zoos. In order to determine the enclosure space, scientists looked at the total size of elephant habitats in zoos, which ranged from 715 square meters to 32,237 square meters.

Researchers discovered no link between the size of the exhibit and the main indicators of elephant health, including reproductive health, reproduction problems and “stereotypical behavior” such as swaying or repetitive rocking.

In fact, those who walked more every day, as measured by GPS recordings, were not thinner than elephants who remained sedentary. And instead of the quantity of space, researchers found that the quality was more important among zoo elephants.

For instance, diverse feeding methods and enrichment activities, including hiding food or hanging food instead of just plopping it on the ground, were strongly linked to signs of positive welfare and positive reproductive health among elephants.

Hard flooring was associated with foot and musculo-skeletal problems and lesser lying down among African elephants. This could potentially lead to sleep deprivation.

Cheryl Meehan, lead author of the study’s overview, says the findings add a twist to what scientists believe, which is often biased toward the idea that more space is better and necessary.

“This was really surprising,” says Meehan.

What’s more astonishing was that large, stable and diverse social groups appeared to be much better for African and Asian zoo elephants, both male and female.

Meehan says the elephants in these kinds of groups displayed less repetitive behavior, while the elephants that spent more time in isolation showed more of it.

Details of the study are published in the journal PLOS ONE.