This Smart Zoo Explains Why They No Longer Have Elephants

Winky and Wanda are two Asian elephants, were lucky enough to live at one of the best zoos in the U.S. But people at the zoo decided it still wasn’t good enough.

“We had been working for years constantly increasing the size of the elephants’ area,” Ron L. Kagan, executive director and chief executive officer of The Detroit Zoo, a leading institution for animal welfare, told The Dodo. “Every time we made those improvements that we thought were important, we then thought, from an elephant’s point of view, it was not.”


Simply, elephants need room. If they don’t walk and maintain a healthy level of activity, it can cause serious health problems. “We thought this was ridiculous,” Kagan said. “We just weren’t able to give the elephants enough room.”

They also needed a warmer climate. It wasn’t natural for Winky and Wanda to endure the frigid Michigan winters at the zoo. Despite the zoo’s best efforts, both elephants suffered from arthritis. They needed freedom.

In 2005, after over a decade of living at the zoo, The Detroit Zoo let Winky and Wanda go. The decision didn’t go unnoticed: The Detroit Zoo was the first major zoo in the U.S. to decide on ethical grounds to no longer keep elephants at all.


Winky and Wanda retired to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) ARK 2000 Sanctuary in California, a home 30 times the size of what The Detroit Zoo could offer them. Winky and Wanda also had the opportunity to form strong social bonds with the other rescued elephants there, something these emotionally complex animals desperately need.


“We want animals to thrive, not simply survive,” Kagan said.


According to Kagan, who recently traveled to Antarctica to see the penguins there, some animals do thrive at zoos.

“A penguin’s life is one of constant attack,” Kagan said. “Penguins are brutally attacked by seals, the elements — even their own children are attacking them for food and care. Life is incredibly hard for a penguin in the wild.” In contrast, the penguins at The Detroit Zoo live an “incredible life,” Kagan said. “That’s not a justification for taking animals out of the wild, of course, and we don’t do that.” Put simply: “Life is not perfect for animals outside zoos. It’s not perfect for animals inside zoos.”

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For Kagan, Winky and Wanda are just one chapter in a long fight to improve conservation efforts for endangered species. “We’re always trying to find out how to improve the zoo for animal welfare,” Kagan said. “We have about 300 different species here. And the challenge is for them to thrive.” Kagan said that if zoo animals aren’t thriving in the zoo, they need to be able to go live somewhere they can.

Amid the recent controversy about the gorilla named Harambe who was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo, The Dodo asked Kagan if he could see zoos moving toward not having great apes at all. “I think that in the future zoos will hold fewer different kinds of species,” Kagan said. “A zoo that might now have orangutans, chimps and gorillas, might just end up having one of those, and giving them more space and more tailored environments to their needs.”


As for Winky and Wanda, they spent the last years of their lives at the sanctuary. Winky died three years after she arrived there, at age 56. Wanda, who enjoyed a decade of the sanctuary, finally passed away in 2015, at age 57. About the decision to retire Winky and Wanda, there’s only one thing that Kagan would have done differently. “I would have done it sooner,” he said.


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