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Posted at 11:53 AM ET, 08/25/2010

A place where elephants can thrive

By elephants, National Zoo, Smithsonian

By Dennis Kelly

I’d like to clear up several misconceptions about the National Zoo’s elephant habitat raised by Peter Stroud’s Aug. 22 Local Opinions commentary.

Mr. Stroud’s comments were based on a single afternoon visit nearly a year ago. Our scientists, veterinarians, keepers and field researchers are internationally recognized as dedicated leaders in the care of Asian elephants in zoos and in the wild.

Elephants need imaginative spaces for exercise and soft ground for their feet. Today, their indoor barn has rubber and sand flooring, and their outdoor area has about two acres of varied terrain, tall grasses, shade, a pool and mud. When the renovation is complete in 2013, there will be even more space and opportunities for enrichment, for what we ultimately envision as a habitat for a natural herd of elephants.

We are confident that our elephants will thrive in their new home. On Labor Day weekend, our visitors will be invited to see the first phase of the elephant habitat. The main viewing area at the bottom of a hill, as well as from the bridge, will allow visitors to marvel at these magnificent animals and help us contribute to their conservation.

The writer is director of the National Zoo.

By elephants, National Zoo, Smithsonian  | August 25, 2010; 11:53 AM ET
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My kids went to camp this summer at the National Zoo, and came away totally committed to protecting wildlife and the environment. The people at the National Zoo are dedicated to taking great care of all the animals there, including elephants, and to educating our kids. I’m proud of our Zoo already and this new elephant habitat will make me even more proud.

Posted by: DMVNative | August 25, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kelly's response is like the emperor with no clothes -- he wants us to believe what he says, not what we can see with our own eyes. The new part of the exhibit (which has not changed in any substantial way since the fall) is disjointed space with nothing of interest for the elephants, surrounded by lots of foliage for the visitors. Two acres is nothing for an elephant, especially when the zoo wants to have as many as 9-12 (I've heard varying numbers). This is a huge waste of $50 million.

Posted by: ammcomms | August 25, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Less than a year ago Mr. Kelly was director of Zoo Atlanta. He did nothing for the African Elephants there. He did jump on the Baby elephant craze and had Dottie artificially inseminated. As a result, she and her unborn calf died. A final necropsy report has never been released.

The National Zoo elephants need our prayers and support. The $50 million spent would have done so much to protect wild habitats and fund anti-poaching patrols. What a waste!

Posted by: clm1950 | August 25, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

I am pleased by the improvements made to the elephants' environment in the first part of the National Zoo's construction and renovation. I am also excited to speak with the Docents who are out amongst the visitors answering questions and pointing out various structures and future additions. They are well informed about the plans and daily progress of this much anticipated new home. I am aware of environmental enrichment opportunities and activities that are planned to allow the elephants to do their favorite things, some in this 1st part and others in the second part of renovations. The plans that were marked out in the former elephant house were informative and I could definitely see how the 2nd new building will be used. I like that one area will have unique opportunities from another and although I think the pool isn't as nice in size as the old pool is where we've seen Kandula swim so many times, I am assured that once the second part of the plans are completed, a pool as large or larger will be incorporated. They are such great swimmers; they will all love that. I'm glad that I donate to the giving tree which buys toys that keepers suggest for the elephants knowing what the individuals like and will use. I too hoped for a scratching post but I can see that there are many places along the yards for them to enjoy that particular pleasure. Additionally, I know that structures can be added to the yards at any time along the years. There is always room for improvement; always.

Dennis Kelly sees the big picture; the plans and updates which are on the zoo's website and the larger conservation issues that elephants face. It is a shame that the facility had to cost so much, when some other zoos who have renovated were able to do it for a lot less, but they didn't have to build to government building codes for all Federal buildings and I'm not sure what their particular indoor attributes are; substrate/flooring, training structures, versatility.

The bottom line is, nothing is going to be more perfect than if elephants could live in the 'wild', unpersecuted for their home range or teeth for trinkets and didn't get blown apart by machine guns and maimed by snares or poisoned by farmers, but the truth is, that's just not the reality for Asian elephants. These elephants, however; are well cared for, their needs are well met, they are well loved by their adoring fans, and have the first part of a brand new home with many more new experiences forthcoming. I am happy for them and looking forward to seeing the full complex when it is complete in all aspects. I find it uninformed, uneducated and premature for someone to judge before it is finished, especially if they have only visited once, last year and clearly haven't done much research about the project. I know plenty of people who are supposedly considered 'experts' in their field, especially those who the media loves to back, but I've met very few who live up to the title under scrutiny

Posted by: dlflin38541 | August 25, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

We as a society need to make the humane decision not to breed or lock up elephants for our amusement. Two acres in which to spend a lifetime (which is not much less than a human's)is cruel and selfish. The weather forces the elephants to be locked in tiny barn stalls for up to 16 - 17 hours a day for 7 - 8 months. This causes captivity-induced ailments and ultimately a premature death. Ironically the zoo environment is killing eles before their natural lifespan just as poachers are!

Posted by: alyne16 | August 26, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

Peter Stroud hit many targets with his well-informed article. If anyone doubts his credentials, just a bit of Googling will tell you (as it did me) that he is a former zookeeper and current consultant to the zoo community, and he has been advising zoo professionals on best practice in animal keeping for many years. The National Zoo may have dedicated staff who love their animals, but I think everyone knows that good intentions and technical competence can be two very different things. It's pretty clear from what Mr Stroud says (and, it seems, what lots of others say) that the needs of huge, intelligent animals are not going to be met from some fenced-off landscaping in a small compound and an escorted-exercise paddock. You can tell that from spending just one day there; you don't need need repeated visits to understand the obvious. It's such a shame -- approaching a scandal -- that our National Zoo spent so much money on something that is not going to work. Is anyone in government going to investigate this?

Posted by: WashPoster7 | August 26, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Regarding:'The weather forces the elephants to be locked in tiny barn stalls for up to 16 - 17 hours a day for 7 - 8 months." Please let's get the facts straight. For example, the National Zoo's elephants had free choice indoor/outdoor access 351 out of 365 days last year due to the dangerous footing caused by the blizzard. However; pictures were posted of the bull playing in chest high snow on the zoo's web page. The bull even chose to sleep outside nightly, except for in the rain, though he could have if he wanted to.

Regarding: "This causes captivity-induced ailments and ultimately a premature death. Ironically the zoo environment is killing eles before their natural lifespan just as poachers are!'" again I say, let's get the facts straight. According to the AZA Elephant Taxon Advisory Group and Species Survival Plan there are 139 Asian elephants residing in 40 AZA accredited institutions; 27 males and 112 females. 155 African elephants reside in 48 AZA accredited institutions; 28 males and 127 females. Studies of captive elephants in indigenous countries as well as the North America and Europe communities have shown that life expectancy at birth in African elephants is 41 years for females and 24 years for males. Maximum life span for females is over 65 years, and for males it is close to 60 years. The average lifespan for Asian elephant females is mid to late 50's. Exact ages of wild elephants can not be precisely determined unless the researcher witnessed the birth, although in Asian countries, 6000 years of historical experience working with elephants garnishes my respect when they estimate the ages of calves. Ambika is 62 years old. She is one of 4 elephants currently in their 60's living in North America. I believe her age and health speak for themselves.

'Google-elephant'; diligent research. Impressive. We should do all of our research on Google ;p

Posted by: dlflin38541 | August 26, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Director Kelly's comments are right on! One thing that should be noted is that, while he certainly is an expert on zoological exhibit design, Mr. Stroud seems to be a part of a coordinated effort to attack zoo elephant exhibits across the nation. At the same time that Stroud was viciously criticizing the National Zoo's new elephant habitat, his partner from Melbourne (D.Hancocks) was writing to a Honolulu paper, attacking the new proposed elephant habitat at the Honolulu Zoo. Back a year ago, both Stroud and Hancocks were used by anti-zoo organizations (PETA and IDA) to try and stop the Los Angeles Zoo from building their great new elephant habitat, Pachyderm Forest. Thankfully, the LA City Council ignored Stroud and listened to Jack Hanna and other zoo experts, approving the LA Zoo's new exhibit.

So I'm just saying that while I can't compete with Mr. Stroud's expertise on this subject, he comes from a background of trying to hurt American zoos, trying to prevent them from exhibiting elephants.

Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America's Best Zoos

Posted by: anyhuis | August 29, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps some context would aid in this discussion. Here is how Peter Stroud describes his work on his website (

For nearly 30 years I have worked as a translator on the boundaries of issues: animal welfare, practical design, organisational policy and politics. I have found myself interpreting, for diverse audiences, key issues about how animals behave, what animals need and how these needs can and should be met.

As a zookeeper, a Curator and as a zoo Director I spent many years helping to identify and develop a rational and humane philosophical thread that would justify the onward development of zoos. This work continues to expand in my role as an independent zoological consultant.

I work across shifting ground where the aims and objectives for animals in captivity, meet the requirement for creative, ethical design. I seek to provide concepts that are ethical, practical, and legal. At all times I try to speak for the animals and their needs while promoting innovation and creativity.

Mr. Nyhuis is a statistician who works full-time for a major drug manufacturer and has visited 200 zoos (from his website --

Posted by: ammcomms | August 30, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

To clarify, Pete Stroud's statement ends at "...promoting innovation and creativity." The last paragraph is mine.

Posted by: ammcomms | August 30, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

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