Zoo Elephants Need Friends and Hobbies

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Photo: The Last Cookie/flickr CC

Elephants in the wild travel up to 50 miles every day, which is a big reason — well, one of them — why advocates argue that the animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity. But for now, at least, hundreds of elephants do live in zoos, and the best zoos are trying to figure out how to give their pachyderms the best lives possible, given the circumstances. One recent study, for instance — which, the authors claim, is the largest ever to take on zoo animals’ welfare — scientists expected to come back with recommendations that zoos make the elephants enclosures as big as possible, thinking this was surely the most important piece of a wild elephant’s life to re-create in captivity.

But that’s not what they found — not exactly. Bigger spaces to roam are indeed important, but even more important, according to these findings, is to give the elephants more elephant friends, and also more of what you could call elephant hobbies.

The study, which included 225 African and Asian elephants at 68 zoos across North America, sought to investigate enrichment opportunities — that is, “making changes to an animal’s environment that provide the animal with added stimulation, choice or control,” as the researchers describe it. They studied the animals’ behavior, reproductive health, and overall health, and found that the animals who fared the best tended to have more access to social and mental stimulation. (The latter might be something like a food puzzle — making the elephants work for their meals by hiding it in their enclosure or within some toy.)

The findings came as a surprise to the researchers, reports the Discovery News site Seeker. “We expected to find associations between the size of zoo exhibits and welfare,” Cheryl Meehan, the study’s lead author and a research associate at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “But space ended up being of minor importance when compared to social factors and management practices such as enrichment programs.” Elephants, as biologist and science writer Carl Safina noted in his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, are a lot like humans in terms of their need for social engagement, and this new study backs that idea up. Elephants, like people, need fun and engaging stuff to do, and pals to do that stuff with.