SeaWorld could stand to take notes on what the Zurich Zoo has managed to accomplish towards meeting the needs of large mammals – in this case, a herd of Asian elephants.
As we learned from the film Blackfish (see trailer below), SeaWorld has steadfastly resisted investing in meeting the psychological needs of the orcas in their tanks, and spent years trying to reinstate the dangerous circus-like shows that they were forced to stop following the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Although SeaWorld unveiled plans to add larger tanks to their parks, they have not shown any interest in changing how the whales are kept.
Putting aside the discussion of whether large, free roaming animals should ever find themselves confined (in my opinion, they should not) – the question becomes one of how to create an environment that addresses the animals’ needs for stimulation and normal social structure with limited space. In this case, the Zurich Zoo has completely re-imagined elephant keeping instead of just giving them a bit more room.
And their plan keeps their keepers safe.
Seeing elephants in tanks is of course a bit mind-bending, until you step back and look at the bigger picture. The Zurich Zoo has taken 2.7 acres and designed an enclosure with so many features that the elephants – kept together in a herd – can do what elephants do, eating, resting, playing on their own schedule. The swimming features are just a small part of an inventive enclosure.
There are no silly shows, and part of the elephant habitat is not open to the public so the elephants are not under constant viewing if they desire privacy.
Another good point about this elephant habitat is the nod to sustainability:
Great emphasis was placed on sustainability during the construction of the compound. The main building material was wood. Heating is provided via a district heating network using the central woodchip heating system at Zoo Zurich. Rainwater is collected from the roof, which measures 6,800 square metres. The water is then used for watering the ground, for moistening the sand, for removing dust from the plants and for supplying the pool maintenance equipment. Finally, an ingenious event control system ensures that the air conditioning in the inner compound conserves natural resources as much as possible.
To keep the personnel safe, the enclosure is designed so that the humans and animals are not in the same place at the same time. Killer whales and elephants are both dangerous to people in captivity, but while SeaWorld continues to hold onto to their old business model that presents significant risk, the Zurich Zoo has taken a proactive stance to protect their elephant keepers.
…the way in which the animal keepers look after the elephants has also changed. The animals are now cared for in “protected contact” at all times. This means that the animal keepers are no longer in the same room as the elephants. This gives the animals more freedom to develop their social structure and ensures greater security for the animal keepers.
While this is not freedom, at least the Zurich Zoo has completely re-thought what captivity entails for elephants.
How hard can it be for SeaWorld to do the same for orcas?