The Denver Zoo debacle might be considered a cautionary tale. In the summer of 2001, an elephant named Hope rampaged through the facility, scaring crowds and nearly injuring a mother and her child.
The 6,700-pound animal was purportedly startled when a trainer dropped a 30-gallon drum. Just a few days earlier, one elephant had knocked another over, and because the zoo didn't have the necessary hoist to raise the fallen elephant, it was euthanized.
To an increasing number of animal behaviorists, such outbursts are hardly surprising. Elephants are quite aware of their captivity, these researchers argue, and suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress similar to that displayed by people who have been imprisoned or experienced war.
This trauma is only exacerbated, they say, by a zoo industry that chooses to ignore what science reveals about the suffering of captive animals. Instead, zoos shuffle elephants from facility to facility "like so much furniture," one researcher says, disrupting the bonding patterns instinctual to these highly intelligent creatures.
And according to elephant advocates, nowhere is the denial of known science more on display than at Tucson's Reid Park Zoo, where officials plan to separate two elephants that have resided together for nearly 30 years.
It's all part of a deeper malaise within zoo culture, says Gay Bradshaw, founder of Oregon's Kerulos Center, which promotes the scientific understanding of sentience among animals. She's also the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity, a psychological portrait of elephants in captivity published by Yale University Press.
According to Bradshaw, plans to separate the Reid Park elephants, Connie and Shaba, disregard what science tells us about the intense bonds these animals can share. "Social relationships are extremely important for psychological as well as physical health," she says. "It's underestimated in animals. But with elephants, it's very well-documented that they have complex sociality.
"You can look at it from a health perspective, and you can look at it from an ethical perspective. The reality is that these (elephants) are essentially in a concentration camp. They're in the same type of situation that brings on complex post-traumatic stress disorder. The neurosciences and neurobiology show that stress and trauma such as what the elephants sustain is incredibly damaging."
Just how damaging was detailed a few years ago, Bradshaw says, in a study appearing in the magazine Science. The article "talked about how, on average, zoo elephants live half as long as free-living elephants."
Similar concerns are raised by Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the author of several books about animal behavior. He says the Denver Zoo incident illustrates how such facilities are creating stress for elephants.
Reid Park Zoo is another example, he says, pointing to the zoo officials' evolving assertions that Connie and Shaba are not necessarily bonded.
"For them to say that Connie and Shaba won't miss one another is just a self-serving justification for what they're doing," Bekoff says. "They will miss one another. Elephants are among the most social animals there are, and they form long-term bonds."
He predicts that the move would take a noticeable toll on both animals, "from apathy and depression to possibly even death."
But Sue Tygielski, an animal behaviorist at the Reid Park Zoo, says precautions have been taken to ensure that Connie and Shaba experience a smooth transition. Connie, a 44-year-old Asian elephant, will be sent to the San Diego Zoo, making way for a small herd of African elephants to be moved from that zoo to Tucson.
The San Diego Zoo "is designed for geriatric elephants, and (Connie) is becoming one," Tygielski says. "That facility will be able to accommodate all of her needs. And Shaba, our African, is still younger, so she will have an opportunity to be in a family setting for the first time in her adult life" with the elephants being transferred here.
These animals will be bred as part a national effort to boost the number of zoo elephants, and to allow the San Diego Zoo to split its growing herd. To officials such as Tygielski, that makes this transfer beneficial in a larger sense, even though the two longtime companions will be separated. "When we weigh those bonds with what their options are, both for physical health and continued mental health, I think we're seeing that (this) option is better," she says.
Tygielski also questions just how bonded the animals are, contradicting statements made by zoo director Susan Basford in 2006, when Basford noted that they were "acclimated to each other, or bonded to each other and to their keepers."
Or statements made to the Arizona Daily Star a year earlier by Gale Ferrick, who spent more than two decades caring for the two elephants. "Their bond is very deep," Ferrick told the paper. "If Shaba makes even the slightest noise, any kind of alarm, Connie rushes over to her and stands guard over her."
Funny how things change.
"That was Gale's interpretation, versus my interpretation," Tygielski says. "Gale watched them with the eye of a loving trainer. But when you watch them from the outside of the exhibit as a behaviorist, there's a difference."
But to critics such as Gay Bradshaw, that "difference" exists for one simple reason: "Science is being used selectively," she says, noting that all vertebrates, from chimpanzees to elephants, "have the same ability to suffer, to feel, to have a sense of self, to have consciousness. That's what the neurobiology says—that they're the same as us."
Of course, admitting that carries with it enormous societal implications, affecting everything from the way we consume meat and use animals for medical research to the way we hold them captive in zoos. "But people don't want to go there," Bradshaw says. "Why? Because of the ethical implications. It would mean that we'd have to overturn the fundaments of our culture."
That seems rather unlikely, given that critics can't even keep the Reid Park Zoo from separating two longtime animal companions named Connie and Shaba.
"From what I understand, these two elephants have a very close relationship," Bradshaw says. "Why can't we do the right thing—the simple, humane thing of respecting a relationship between these two individuals who, after their whole lives of being traumatized and suffering and being threatened, still have the capacity to feel and to care for one another?"