‘Nothing to do, nowhere to go’: what happens when elephants live alone

Few laws or regulations prevent elephants from isolating themselves. The AZA requires that zoos with female elephants must “have a minimum of three females (or space to have three females)” – meaning a zoo can retain its accredited status even if it has an elephant , as long as the installation has room for three elephants. Ideally, the elephants would be herded together, said AZA President Dan Ashe. National geographic last year, but added: “Sometimes animals don’t want to be in groups.” The Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture, contains several regulations dealing with the social needs of animals, including primates, dogs, and marine mammals, but none for elephants.

The number of captive elephants has declined in the United States, and as more elephants in zoos die than are born, the number of lone elephants will increase. More than 30 North American zoos have have phased out their elephant exhibits since the 1990s for various reasons, including the cost and difficulty of caring for elephants.

“You’re going to have facilities that only have one elephant,” says Delcianna Winders, director of the animal rights program at Vermont Law School. Will they decide to send them to sanctuaries where they will be with other elephants? “Or will they claim they’re too old to move out and keep them alone?”

The AZA, which oversees conservation breeding programs for African and Asian elephants, agrees that zoo populations cannot be sustained without an influx of new animals from wild populations – a controversial position in itself because it often involves the break-up of elephant families.

An elephant never forgets

In the wild, much of elephants’ brain stimulation comes from other elephants, says elephant behavior scientist Joyce Poole and National Geographic Explorer. They are always on the move – listening, sniffing, playing – whereas solitary captive elephants are “not very lively” – they have no other elephants to interact with and nowhere to explore, she says. (Learn more about the African elephant ethogram from Poole, the most complete audio-visual library ever made on the behavior of African savannah elephants.)

Male elephants spend 10 to 14 years with their mother before leaving to form their own spouse.singles groups.” Women remain with their mothers throughout their lives, in multigenerational social groups for up to 50 years.

“Growing up in a social setting or with a family is essential to their development,” says Poole, and social interactions remain central to their well-being throughout their lives.

This may be related to certain brain characteristics of elephants. Their cells, or neurons, have a particular long branched dendrites, which may suggest that elephants process information more thoroughly and contemplatively than other mammals. They have as many neurons in their cerebral cortex like humans, and they have relatively larger pyramidal neurons, a type of cortical neuron central to cognitive processes, according to elephant cognition scientist Lucy Bates. (To learn more about how elephants communicate, check out our elephant call guide.)

Although not known for certain, these characteristics may also help explain why elephants have strong memories, especially in a social context. Some evidence suggests that after 27 years of separation, captive elephants can still recognize the smell of their mother’s urine. In the wild, elephants can distinguish between calls from family members and strangers; they can recognize the voices of at least a hundred other elephants; and they can save the locations of no less than 17 different family members. In contrast, humans are thought to be able to retain about seven items in their short-term memory at a time.

The fact that “elephant brains are so adapted to this kind of social processing [of] the information just demonstrates how important family and social interaction is to them,” says Bates.

Changes in the brain

At the Natural Bridge Zoo, Asha spends hours walking around her garden, grazing quietly.

Veterinarian Philip Ensley, who has worked with elephants at the San Diego Zoo for nearly 30 years, visited the zoo in September to observe him and assess his health for the nonprofit Free all captive elephants, one of several animal rights groups that have criticized Asha’s conditions. In a private report shared with National Geographic, he noted that Asha rocked back and forth, shifted her weight from certain limbs (potentially indicating arthritis or joint disease, which are common in captive elephants), and seemed “unstimulated” and “detached” .

“It is inappropriate in the care and management of elephants in captivity to keep a single female,” he concluded in the report. The lack of a mate “makes Asha suffer”.

The stress of captivity can change the brain, says Jacobs. In wild animals in captivity, one effect can be stereotypies – repetitive and seemingly unnecessary behaviors, like a monkey pulling its hair out. They are most often displayed by bored social animals in captivity and are rarely seen in the wild. For a solitary captive elephant, the loss of control of its environment and lack of stimulation caused by long-term isolation can trigger pacing, head bobbing, swaying or swaying, among other repetitive behaviors.

In one report 2017 on lone captive elephants in 14 accredited zoos in Japan, almost all were noted to display stereotypical behaviors.

“If there’s a behavioral issue or a psychological issue, there’s an underlying neural issue,” says Jacobs. Repetitive behaviors, according to studies in humans and other animalshave been linked to disruption of the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that helps control voluntary movement.

In elephants that sway or pace, their basal ganglia are likely so disrupted that they can’t stop these repetitive actions, Jacobs says. (This is also true for humans who suffer from basal ganglia damage, such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, he says, which can cause involuntary movements and debilitating tremors.)

For wild animals in captivity, this type of brain damage would be associated with a lack of stimulation. “The brain feeds on stimulation,” says Jacobs. Without it, the dendrites shrink from lack of use and the capillaries shrink in diameter, reducing blood flow to the brain. A study 2018 on the effects of prolonged isolation on the brains of mice found a 20% reduction in their neurons. “‘Use it or lose it’ – this applies to the muscles, but it also applies to the brain,” he says.

Stress, whether caused by isolation or something else, also activates the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, which releases cortisol into the bloodstream, giving the body a boost of energy to respond to the perceived threat. When the fight-or-flight response is continuously stimulated, it ends up damaging nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is central to learning and memory. In humans, a compromised hippocampus is often associated with depression, bipolar disorder and other stress-related illnesses.

‘Why is it even still allowed?’

An elephant alone in captivity has “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see, no one to communicate with,” Poole says.

“Why is it still allowed for these animals that we know so well? Why don’t our laws do anything about this? said Delcianna Winders of Vermont Law School.

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