Thursday, May 14, 2015

52 Snapshots of Life: Teach

Jane Goodall calls her childhood dog Rusty her "teacher", crediting him with giving her the insight that animals have personalities and emotions, considered highly unscientific throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, in her Ph.D. dissertation she had to say roundabout things like, "If it were a human child who did this, I might say it was afraid," instead of, "The young chimp was fearful of the snake in the tree."
Jane Goodall and her teacher, Rusty
Photo Credit: Jane Goodall Institute

Our knowledge and understanding of animal behavior is growing all the time. The animals themselves "teach"  the ethologists who observe them. Of course the scientists have to design good experiments and/or make careful and repeated observations too. 

Characterizing elephants has come a long way from "elephants never forget". There is strong evidence that elephants grieve. They recognize and remember each other, even decades later.  Their cognition is quite high; they are one of the few mammals that passes the mirror test for self-recognition. They communicate for miles with bass rumblings too low for human ears. Traveling up to 100 miles a day, their society is complex and highly organized. 

All of this presents an ethical dilemma regarding elephants in captivity. This is an excerpt from a recent email from Greg Bockheim, Director of the Virginia Zoo, where I am a docent:

For more than 100 years, the Virginia Zoo has been committed to wildlife and providing exemplary care for the animals that call Hampton Roads home. This commitment to our animals requires us to review and examine each area of the animal collection and to implement programs that are advantageous to each species and each individual animal.

With that said, in light of recent research, the management team is examining the Zoo’s elephants, Cita and Lisa, and our elephant program overall. Recent studies of elephants have shown how significant social interaction with other elephants, social choice, living in multi-generational herds and other important factors contribute to the overall physical and mental health of these mega vertebrates.

Based on this research, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) put forth a requirement that zoos with elephants need to house at least three animals. The Virginia Zoo, as well as 18 other zoos, need to meet this requirement in the next year. Because it is our goal to provide the best physical and mental care for Cita and Lisa we will be investigating the best ways that their needs can be met.

Cita and Lisa have been part of the Virginia Zoo family and have played a significant role as ambassadors for their species. The Virginia Zoo remains committed to furthering the conservation messaging of these great animals and to continue supporting the important conservation work that is helping save the species from extinction.

(He goes on to ask for input from the community in making important decisions about Cita and Lisa's welfare.) 

Cita and Lisa
Photo Credit: Virginia Zoo
Cita and Lisa are lovingly cared for and monitored in compliance with modern protocols.  But as the email points out, new research has resulted - for accredited zoos at least - in new standards of care. Basically, knowledge of captive animals will inevitably result in higher, more appropriate standards. In fact this demand of the AZA that its zoos go above and beyond to maintain the best lives of their animals is why I'm comfortable teaching at the Virginia Zoo.

For me, I hope Lisa and Cita go to either a much larger zoo that can support a large, multigenerational herd or to an accredited elephant sanctuary. Both elephants were born and raised in captivity. Ultimately though, what I'd like to see happen with elephants is a global crackdown on the poaching that is critically endangering them in the wild. Yes, habitat loss and fragmentation is a big problem, but the poaching is what has killed 100,000 elephants in three years (National Geographic)

The poachers are in Africa but the market they cater to is…us. Two loopholes in the law allow the U.S. to be one of the largest (some say THE largest) market for ivory, reports Esmond Martin for National Geographic

"One is that tusks come in from Africa as trophies and are
 sometimes sold within the U.S., which is illegal. The second 
problem is that people often declare worked ivory items to be 
antiques when in fact they were made after 1989," Martin 
"Nearly one-third of the items we found, about 7,400 pieces,
 likely had been smuggled in into the U.S. since the 1990 
ivory trade ban."
There have, however, also been more recent ivory seizures 
in the U.S. than in any other country, the report points out.

If, like me, you hate the idea of elephants living in even the most
ideal captive conditions, there is really only one way to work to 
eliminate that. The ivory trade must stop. It's not enough to not buy
 ivory ourselves. Please support organizations that advocate for 
improved laws and protections against this form of wildlife crime. 
Spread the word and sign petitions.  

The animals will teach us about their fascinating lives. 
But we have to be willing to learn.

The National Geographic links in the text will take you directly to the article I referenced.

This post is part of the 52 Snapshots of Life challenge, hosted by 
The Lazy Pit Bull. Join in!


  1. We hate to see ANY animal killed for ANYTHING OTHER than FOOD... We despise Trophy hunters...

    1. Same here. I have no problem with ethical hunters who respect property and the animals they hunt, with the intention of using them for food, but there's no sense in killing for fun.

  2. I totally agree with Frankie and Ernie
    Loves and licky kisses
    Princess Leah xxx


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