If you're visiting the Reid Park Zoo anytime soon, don't be surprised when the groan of earthmovers drowns out exotic bird calls or the lion's grand roar.
This new rumbling is the sound of an institution at a crossroads.
Back around 2005, the zoo began raising money for an expansion of its elephant exhibit. This plea for cash carried a caveat: If the fund drive proved unsuccessful, two longtime companions—the Asian elephant Connie and her African counterpart Shaba—would need to be separated and dispatched to parts unknown. The potential tragedy of breaking their bond was routinely emphasized by zoo officials, to a broadly sympathetic community.
Nearly $10 million later (with about half of that money coming from taxpayers), construction is under way, despite these cash-strapped times. It's unfortunate that those dollars weren't spent on making the zoo a better place for animals that are better suited to a home at the Reid Park Zoo, which has limited resources and limited space.
But this new expansion has also sparked serious questions about zoo officials themselves: Did they deliberately manipulate public sentiment by emphasizing the bond between Connie and Shaba just to raise money?
It also brings into sharp focus the very ethics of holding these huge, wide-ranging animals in relatively minuscule enclosures. Adding insult, those same officials have now reversed themselves by dismissing the attachment between its two elephants—a bond that animal experts say is beyond doubt. They now plan to send Connie alone to the San Diego Zoo.
Meanwhile, the larger consequences of captivity are glaring. On average, zoo elephants tend to live half as long as their counterparts in the wild. They suffer chronic health problems such as arthritis, from being kept on concrete floors and not receiving sufficient exercise.
Then comes the profound upheaval of moving them—a particularly stressful prospect for aging elephants such as 44-year-old Connie.
Over that time, Connie certainly helped raise plenty of zoo revenues. But that hasn't stopped plans to have her sent to San Diego. One former trainer not associated with the zoo predicts that the stress of this disruption could result in the deaths of both Connie and Shaba.
Ironically, this occurs at a time when similar zoos across the nation, such as those in San Francisco and Detroit, have humanely relinquished their elephants to sanctuaries.
"It's becoming clear that the disparity between what elephants need and what they get in captivity is quite significant," said Detroit zoo director Ron Kagan, explaining his decision to close the elephant exhibit.
Obviously, this issue goes far beyond Reid Park. Indeed, the transfer and breeding of these animals raises profoundly disturbing questions about the zoo industry itself, and the deeper motives of its accrediting group, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
As zoos around the country regularly become the targets of protesters, the AZA has taken several steps to protect its image. Paramount among them are highly touted efforts by the association and its members to promote wildlife conservation. This endeavor is highlighted by its Species Survival Plan, which emphasizes the breeding of threatened or endangered species within accredited facilities.
Yet to what end? Zoos such as the one in San Diego have undertaken aggressive breeding programs, and Reid Park may do likewise when its own new elephant herd arrives from San Diego. But animals bred in captivity are notoriously difficult to reintroduce to the wild. In fact, it appears that no elephants have ever been reintroduced. Instead, critics say, the SSP program is largely greenwash, with the primary goal of helping zoos to perpetuate themselves and their captive wildlife stock.
For instance, zoos drive up attendance by displaying so-called "charismatic" species such as elephants, ostensibly to raise money for wildlife conservation. Yet the AZA, with more than 200 accredited members, devotes a mere $90 million annually to conservation programs.
But in the end, it comes down to Connie and Shaba, two elephants that have spent decades side by side at the Reid Park Zoo. Contradicting their earlier emphasis on the bonding of this pair, zoo officials are now saying that separation is best for both—apparently in blind pursuit of the zoo's breeding program.
In the process, however, those officials have violated the trust of this community. Even worse, they've shredded their commitment to Connie and Shaba.