10 Worst Zoos For Elephants In Captivity

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SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (Jan 9, 2018) – The shocking hidden suffering of captive elephants has been exposed today by In Defense of Animals on its respected annual list of the Ten Worst Zoos For Elephants in North America. The 2017 list reveals premature deaths, brutal breeding procedures, and flagrant violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Zoos all over the US and one zoo in Canada appear on the Ten Worst Zoos list, with Topeka Zoo in Kansas shamed as the #1 Worst Zoo for “gross neglect” of a dying elephant.

Bubbles the Elephant at Myrtle Beach Safari

Bubbles the Elephant at Myrtle Beach Safari.

“Elephants have suffered horrendously in North American zoos in 2017,” said In Defense of Animals elephant scientist, Toni Frohoff Ph.D. “Zoos violate elephants’ rights and submit them to horrific and unnecessary abuses. Urgent action is needed to shut down the archaic zoo exhibits on this list, and retire the elephants to sanctuaries where they can live in peace.”

Elephants in zoos across North America are being subjected to barbaric bullhooks, sexual mistreatment, grossly inadequate conditions, egregious disregard for their needs, forced performances, captivity-caused health problems, unsuitable enclosures, cold climates, incompatible companions, and crushing solitary confinement.

Topeka Zoo, named worst in 2017, has a long history of violating the Animal Welfare Act. The zoo failed miserably to adequately care for Shannon, a 35-year-old African elephant who died on December 11, 2017, after spending ten brutal hours down on her side without any monitoring from zoo staff who had left for the night. Shannon had to be hoisted to her feet by firefighters the day before, after enduring a lengthy “downed” ordeal.

Topeka Zoo Director Brendan Wiley himself admitted that for elephants, “lying down for several hours can potentially be fatal, given their body mass.” On the day of her death, Wiley said on camera, “We think she was down for a total of about 10 hours yesterday and… probably about the same amount of time today.” “That’s a lot of time for an elephant to be down.”

Shannon the Elephant Topeka Zoo

Shannon the Elephant at Topeka Zoo

The zoo chose not to keep someone on site to monitor Shannon’s video feed and staff went home for the night. Given the seriousness of Shannon’s condition, the zoo’s actions were nothing short of gross neglect and blatantly inadequate care.

“The gross neglect and death of Shannon at Topeka Zoo is only the tip of an iceberg that threatens the lives of all elephants who remain there”, said Dr. Frohoff. “It should be patently obvious that a severely sick elephant must be watched closely around the clock. Not bothering to check Shannon’s video feed for over 9 hours, the night after an emergency ordeal, is inexcusable. Proper observation would have likely minimized Shannon’s suffering, and could possibly have prevented her death. At 35-years old, Shannon should have been living some of her best years, yet she was sick and died at Topeka Zoo.”

Medical records indicate that Shannon was suffering for weeks, showing signs of pain, tremors, and weakness. Topeka Zoo reports that it has now bought a new video monitoring system, which is far too little – far too late.

Shannon’s death is indicative of the longtime problems that continue to plague Topeka Zoo and its animals. The zoo has been cited numerous times for violations of Federal Animal Welfare regulations which include animal deaths, injuries, and lack of proper veterinary care. In 2013, the zoo paid a $45,000 usd civil penalty to settle charges brought against it by the USDA for at least 51 willful violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The charges included failure to provide adequate veterinary care for elephants Tembo and Sunda, including problems with their skin, feet, and nutrition.

The elephants remaining at Topeka Zoo are at risk. Asian elephant Sunda has a history of chronic foot disease caused by lack of movement and standing on hard surfaces throughout many years. Topeka’s sub-freezing winters exacerbate health problems, as the elephants are forced to remain indoors for excessively long periods with minimal exercise. Cora, an Asian elephant, who came to the zoo in 2016 with Shannon, is particularly at risk because of the health issues associated with performing unnatural circus tricks, which she did for many years before coming to the zoo.

In Defense of Animals is calling for the urgent relocation of the Topeka Zoo elephants for their safety and wellbeing. Dr. Frohoff said, “We urge Topeka Zoo and the USDA to avert further tragedy and release elephants, Cora, Tembo and Sunda to an accredited sanctuary where they can receive the professional health care they need and deserve.”


1. Topeka Zoo, Topeka, Kansas

2. Pittsburgh Zoo and International Conservation Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

3. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Omaha, Nebraska

4. Louisville Zoo, Louisville, Kentucky

5. Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon

6. Myrtle Beach Safari, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

7. Two Tails Ranch, Williston, Florida

8. St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis, Missouri

9. Natural Bridge Zoo, Rockbridge County, Virginia

10. Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, Columbia, South Carolina


Calgary Zoo Elephant Lucy

Calgary Zoo elephant “Lucy”- image: savelucy.ca

Edmonton Valley Zoo, Alberta, Canada

Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

Featured image- Infant elephant at Pittsburgh Zoo by Andrew Rush/ AP

Discover the full list of the Ten Worst Zoos For Elephants in North America 2017

In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization with over 250,000 supporters and a 30-year history of fighting for animals, people and the environment through education, campaigns and hands-on rescue facilities in India, Africa, and rural Mississippi.

IN DEFENSE OF ANIMALS • 3010 KERNER BLVD. • SAN RAFAEL, CA 94901 • 415-448-0048

1 Comment to 10 Worst Zoos For Elephants In Captivity

  1. Earlier this week, In Defense of Animals shamed Edmonton Zoo on its respected annual list of the 10 Worst Zoos (the article above), for stubbornly refusing to put Lucy the elephant’s welfare first by complying with Alberta’s zoo standards. Yesterday, Edmonton Zoo responded with slanderous allegations.

    In Defense of Animals has rightly exposed Edmonton Zoo for its solitary confinement and treatment of Lucy. For many years, the Zoo has failed to comply with Alberta’s Zoo Standards and other professional welfare standards requiring social interaction for elephants. The government is failing to enforce the standards that should be protecting Lucy’s welfare. The only solution to Lucy’s respiratory and other health issues might rely on her being retired to a warmer environment, for which Asian elephants have evolved.

    We are all the more concerned for Lucy’s wellbeing since Edmonton Zoo appears to rely on a welfare assessment by a veterinarian who endorses the use of barbaric bullhooks and even publicly defended a circus after an elephant there was beaten with a pitchfork. The Zoo justifies its isolation and cold confinement of Lucy based on this so-called “independent third party” report. The credibility of this report is further compromised by a conflict of interest owing to Edmonton Zoo’s director being a board member of the organization that commissioned the veterinarian’s report at the time.

    In Defense of Animals takes extreme care in producing its respected annual list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants, which is reviewed by some of the world’s most esteemed elephant scientists. In 14 years of exposing the shocking suffering of elephants in zoos through the list, there has never been a single factual error. Even a cursory look at Lucy’s living conditions shows evidence of Lucy’s desperate and dire situation.

    Toni Frohoff Ph.D.

    Elephant Scientist

    In Defense of Animals

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