Activist Animal Organization Accuses Cincinnati Zoo of Harming Elephants, Despite Expanded Habitat Under Construction

A new habitat will give the zoo's pachyderms even more room for exercise and socialization, the zoo says.

click to enlarge Construction for ongoing on Elephant Trek, the Cincinnati Zoo's expanded habitat that's expected to open in 2024. - Photo: Provided by the Cincinnati Zoo
Photo: Provided by the Cincinnati Zoo
Construction for ongoing on Elephant Trek, the Cincinnati Zoo's expanded habitat that's expected to open in 2024.

An animal rights organization has included the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden on its list of worst zoos, but the local zoo says its inclusion is unwarranted.

In Defense of Animals (IDA), an organization based in California, ranks the Cincinnati Zoo as the No. 3 worst zoo for elephants, claiming in a press release that elephants are "crammed into an unbearably small one-acre space." The organization also claims that the zoo's elephants are aggressive from "chronic frustration and boredom."

IDA also claims that Elephant Trek — the Cincinnati Zoo's major elephant habitat expansion project currently in progress — won't alleviate the group's concerns about space, despite the project costing about $50 million and projected to be about five times the current habitat's size. The group says that more elephants will be transported from other countries to fill the space, inappropriate breeding will occur, and the sizable funds instead could have been spent on safe habitats on elephants' native continents, like Africa.

"The development will stress animals with three years of construction noise and leave them barely better off," IDA's press release says. "Whether they each get a quarter acre or a half, it’s a ludicrously small space for an elephant. It’s only a matter of time before this elephant pressure cooker turns into tragedy."

But officials at the Cincinnati Zoo disagree with IDA's claims. The institution  is "well respected and exceeds Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) rigorous expectations and requirements," says Michelle Curley, the zoo's communications director.

"The current elephant yard was expanded in 2019 to give the elephants more space, more enrichment opportunities, and day and night outdoor access. The facility is equipped with elephant welfare monitoring systems to ensure that the elephants have a diverse and engaging 24-hr experience that includes regular opportunities to engage in natural behaviors and exert choice and control over their environment," Curley says. "On a typical day, the elephants have access to the big yard and can choose to stay in or go out. The outside area includes a pool, multiple activity zones strategically located to encourage full use of the space, and designated spots for keeper training sessions."

The upcoming Elephant Trek project will expand that space even further. Part of the "More Home to Roam" campaign, which also funded Roo Valley and African Penguin Point, the endeavor is the biggest construction project in the zoo's history. It broke ground last June and is expected to open in 2024, Curley says.

"The new habitat will be nearly five times the size of the current elephant yards and will include 4 acres of grass and sandy terrain, with trees, plants, rocks and water features that mimic the Asian elephant’s native habitat," Curley says. "At the center will be a 22,000-square-foot Elephant Barn — featuring a 10,000-square-foot communal room with high ceilings where the elephants can congregate, socialize, exercise and create strong family ties."

Curley notes that In Defense of Animals, which was founded in 1983 by veterinarian Elliot M. Katz, is unaccredited.

The Cincinnati Zoo has repeatedly won honors from other zoos as well as from publications like USA Today for its animal care and processes.

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