Watch CBSN Live

Elephant Exhibits Endangered?

Elephant exhibits are always among the most popular at zoos across the country. But animal rights activists and zoo managers are facing a growing debate over whether these giant creatures belong in the confines of a zoo at all.

The Early Show resident veterinarian Debbye Turner examined the issue and found there are no easy answers.

Most people would never have the opportunity to see an elephant up close, other than at a zoo. But these animals have complex needs, and not every zoo has the space or resources to meet those needs.

Turner visited the Oregon Zoo, where Bob Lee watches over seven elephants, a routine that includes a nearly daily dose of exercise for each of them. Not only do the animals need the activity, they need the stimulation of the sights and sounds of other animals, what Lee calls elephant enrichment.

Trending News

"The enrichment part is all the things she gets to see," Lee said during his daily walk with an elephant named Chendra. "Let her see other animals, let her get excited by people and events. That's the thing that really makes a difference to her."

But even all these routines can't mask the fact that zoo elephants have limited space.

"Elephants simply do not do well in captivity. They're very social animals and they're used to living in herds," said Michael McGraw of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "No matter how big zoos make their enclosures, no matter how much money they spend trying to improve the elephants' quality of life, it will never compare to how these animals are able to live their lives in the wild."

Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo, concedes that elephants don't belong in every zoo. "What they need to do is take a look at their program, take a look at their staff, take a look at their resources, take a look at their community support, and decide, is this a species we can help best? And, if not, then they shouldn't have elephants."

Turner says animal rights activists are alarmed by a number of recent elephant deaths in places such as Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo and the National Zoo in Washington. Last year, after two of their elephants died, the San Francisco Zoo closed the elephant exhibit.

Bob Jenkins is the director of animal care at the San Francisco Zoo and said, "The decision here was made solely on what we could provide the animals." In their case, Jenkins says space was not the problem, money was.

"It's a money issue, plain and simple. A good elephant exhibit is very expensive. You're talking $12-15 million dollars or more," he said. "So the decision was made to move the animals out."

Instead of sending their elephants to another zoo, San Francisco shipped theirs to an elephant sanctuary in northern California, where the animals have hundreds of acres to roam. The sanctuary also has elephants from the Detroit zoo, which recently closed its exhibit. To some activists, that's a rallying cry.

"PETA is calling on all zoos to follow the lead of the Detroit Zoo and the San Francisco Zoo and retire their elephants to sanctuaries and permanently close their elephant exhibits," said McGraw.

Turner points out that at zoos across the country, elephants remain among the most popular attraction. And Bob Jenkins agrees that it's a sad loss for the community. "The zoos themselves would be fine if they don't have elephants. I think it's the people and the community who will really lose out," he said.

While not everyone agrees with PETA on this issue, animal rights activists are getting credit for improving awareness and helping to spur an effort to give elephants more space and improve their conditions. Many zoos are either spending money to enlarge their elephant habitats or, as the Bronx Zoo recently announced, are phasing out their elephant exhibits altogether.

View CBS News In