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The Ongoing Travesty of the Secretly Abducted Swaziland Elephants

It’s Not Only “Animal Rights Activists” or “Extremists” Who Care

A version of this story appeared in Huffpost Denver

I recently wrote an essay called “The Stolen 18: Swaziland Elephants Secretly Shipped to U.S Zoos to Avoid Legal Challenge.” However, it turns out that only 17 elephants were shipped, because according to the zoos one had died in December, but this too was kept a secret.

I learned about this secret transfer in an anonymous email sent to me by a very courageous and compassionate person. I thought that others who are also working on stopping the shipment of the elephants also received the same email, but I discovered they did not. I shared it, keeping the sender’s identity confidential, and this got the ball rolling from a number of different people and global media (please see, for example, “US zoos secretly fly 18 elephants out of Swaziland ahead of court challenge“ and “To save rhinos, half of this African country’s elephants are being airlifted to U.S. zoos“).

baby elephant hangs out with parentphoto by Chad Rosenthal, on FlickrAfrican elephant populations are already severely threatened due to poaching, trophy-hunting and habitat loss. Wildlife biologists estimate that unless there’s a serious intervention to save them, within 10 years there will be no African elephants left in the wild.

You can read much more about this underhanded transport here because many people are deeply concerned, not only animal rights activists. Michael Harris, Director of the Wildlife Law Program for Friends of Animals, had previously filed a complaint against the transport of the 18 elephants that the zoos were trying to avoid. According to this article, the hearing for these animals was scheduled for March 17 in Swaziland. But the elephants were shipped out before the hearing could take place.

According to a CNN report: “On arrival, five were transferred to the Dallas Zoo under police escort. The remaining 12 are the newest residents of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.” The report said that “the zoos defended the transfer, saying the animals were set to be killed to make room for rhinos at the Swaziland facilities. The country is also undergoing a drought. ‘It escalated to a rescue mission last fall due to this state-of-emergency drought,’ said Gregg Hudson, president of Dallas Zoo.”

African elephant populations have declined 60 percent since 1978, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed them as threatened. The steep decline is largely a result of habitat loss, poaching, commercial exploitation, trophy hunting, human-elephant conflict, regional conflict and instability, and climate change. Unless something changes, within a decade or so there will be no African elephants left in the wild. (Read the Journal’s in-depth report on this crisis The End for Elephants.)

Elephants are amazing animals who people call “charismatic megafauna” and they generate a lot of money. They also are used as breeding machines and transferred around as if they’re non-feeling, non-sentient objects, who are expected to perform on demand to make more elephants who will spend their lives in captivity. Despite their cash value as they’re viewed and selfishly, shamelessly, arrogantly, and disrespectfully used as mere commodities, numerous zoos have chosen to close down their elephant exhibit or have sent elephants to sanctuaries because they can’t meet the social and physical needs of these magnificent beings (please also see “Detroit Zoo’s Ron Kagan Talks About ‘Patient-Centered’ Zoos“).

A lot of money also is involved in keeping elephants in cages, and Mark Reed, Sedgwick County Zoo’s director, has noted, “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ we will have young elephant calves born here,“ ... “That’s going to skyrocket the attendance like nothing ever has here before.”

We also read, “In an online statement Dallas Zoo officials said, in part:
We are outraged at claims by animal extremists that these elephants were moved suddenly to circumvent their misguided efforts to delay this move via a lawsuit. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We could not stand by and let activists endanger the lives of these elephants with delaying tactics. The well-being of these animals is more important to us than anything, and we are thankful that a federal judge agreed.”

The psychology behind framing and vilifying those concerned as only “animal rights activists” or “extremists” is terribly misleading.

It is interesting how zoo administrators responded to the criticism of this clandestine move. They vilified and dismissed their critics as being merely “animal rights activists” or “extremists” and justified their behavior by claiming they wanted to avoid giving them more ammunition to use against them.

According to a statement from the zoos, one of the 18 elephants died in December due to gastrointestinal issues and zoo administrators kept this secret as well to avoid the wrath of animal rights activists according to an email I received last week.

Claiming that their critics are merely animal rights activists is terribly misleading. Numerous scientists, including those who have devoted their lives to studying elephant behavior and conservation and the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, along with non-academics, are deeply concerned and strongly critical of this secret flight.

There is a lot of food for thought here for psychologists who study different forms of dissent and criticism and I hope that conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists will weigh in on this. Indeed, in this and other cases, the self-serving framing and writing off of critics as only animal rights activists hasn’t worked. And, it is essential to counter this egregious move. The wide variety of people who oppose the handling of these magnificent animals — the secret death and the clandestine “rescue” — have nothing to defend because these accusations are ludicrous and false.

Keeping animals in zoos is not close to being an effective way to rewilding our hearts. Shame on the people involved in this clandestine transfer of these magnificent intelligent, social, emotional, and sentient beings. And many thanks to all the people from all corners of the world, not only so-called animal rights activists or extremists, who are protesting this brazen insolence and elephantine travesty.

Marc Bekoff
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). His website is; Follow him on twitter @MarcBekoff

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