Saturday, 18 August 2012

Melbourne Zoo and its elephants

In 2012 Melbourne Zoo is celebrating its 150th birthday.

Earlier in the year I wrote an opinion piece about the Zoo's decision to use images of the baby  elephant it bred in captivity - Mali - as one of their principle means of commemorating the event. I wrote:

Mali will live her entire life in a space only a fraction the size of the typical home range of a wild herd of female Asiatic elephants. She may literally never know what it is to run. She will have no control over who she mates with, whether she has a calf, or what happens to that calf. She will never taste the foods of her homeland. She will not make a single significant decision about her life. It has already been determined that Mali will live in a tiny enclosure, on display, with a couple of other elephants, for the entirety of her life. She will never be returned to Asia. Nor will her offspring.
Does the elephant really encapsulate everything Melbourne Zoo wants to say about itself after 150 years?

The Zoo's idea was to commission artists to paint Mali sized statutes and to place those painted statutes around the city of Melbourne.

The statues have now started appearing throughout the city. The photo below was taken in Parkville. The second photo is the text that accompanies the statute.

While I think the artistry is beautify, I am no less disappointed by Melbourne Zoo's choice. My view is that the thing Melbourne Zoo should be least proud of is its elephant enclosure. I wrote earlier in the year:

Many urban zoos have decommissioned their elephant enclosures. In 2006, Philadelphia Zoo ended its 132 year old practice of exhibiting elephants. Andrew Baker, former vice-president of Philadelphia Zoo, said that in order to continue exhibiting elephants, the Zoo would need to expand the space devoted to them. They were not prepared to do so because community attitudes are shifting so quickly that they were concerned that by the time they had completed a new enclosure it would already by out of step with community expectations – it could be too small or not adequatly enriched. Zoos in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and New York have all done the same.
Yet despite this international trend, Melbourne Zoo persists in keeping elephants on a tiny tract of land in the high density inner city suburb of Parkville. This is hardly a vanguard approach to exhibiting animals and seems to have little to do with fighting extinction.
It may be true that Melbourne Zoo is also doing good conservation work. Indeed, they achieved quite  PR coupe by attracting renowned wildlife documentary maker Sir David Attenborough to the Zoo. He seemed to be sincerely impressed with the Zoo's stick instinct breeding program. But I am yet to be persuaded that Melbourne Zoo's elephant breeding program is about conservation first and foremost. Moreover, even if I could be persuaded that conservation is the principle motivator it would still be unclear to me why the elephants must be exhibited in the middle of the city of Melbourne. 
If Melbourne Zoo is going to fight extinction by caging animals why can't it do it by housing animals in enclosures that are appropriate for the animal in question? Stick instincts may have the capacity to thrive in small cages. I don't think the same is true for elephants. 

1 comment:

  1. Bravo for writing this, I've been trying to educate people about the elephants at Melbourne and Sydney for the last 2 years and am planning to visit the 'factory' they came from in Thailand next week to hopefully shed more light on these poor creatures. I hope you can follow me at