Commonalities in Management and Husbandry Factors Important for Health and Welfare of Captive Elephants in North America and Thailand
Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Front Royal, VA 22630, USA
Center of Elephant and Wildlife Research, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Department of Companion Animals and Wildlife Clinics, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Department of Veterinary Bioscience and Veterinary Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Animals 2020, 10(4), 737; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10040737
Received: 12 March 2020 / Revised: 14 April 2020 / Accepted: 20 April 2020 / Published: 23 April 2020
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Captive Elephant Welfare and Behaviour)
There is considerable concern about the welfare of elephants used for education, research, and entertainment purposes in western zoos and Asian tourist camps, and whether captive venues meet the needs of these highly social and intelligent animals. Therefore, it is important to conduct studies to determine how factors in the captive environment affect animal welfare both positively and negatively. The use of multi-disciplinary approaches to assess welfare has aided improvements in the management of captive elephants in North American zoos and Thailand tourist camps. In this paper, we review the most recent findings of our elephant studies that, using similar methodologies, highlight the importance of proper diets, adequate exercise, natural and stimulating environments, and freedom of movement to welfare. Overall, we found a number of commonalities in how environmental factors affect biological function of elephants managed under vastly different conditions. This type of integrative information is important for establishing welfare guidelines to ensure healthy, sustainable global populations of captive elephants.
This review paper is a synthesis of results from multiple studies that we have conducted over the past several years using similar methodologies to identify factors related to welfare of captive populations of elephants in North American zoos and Thailand tourist camps. Using multiple conservation physiology tools, we found that, despite vastly disparate management systems, there are commonalities in how environmental and husbandry factors affect physical and physiological outcomes. Elephants appear to have better welfare, based on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) analyses, when housed under conditions that provide a more enriched, stimulating, and less restrictive environment. We also found it is essential to balance diet and exercise for good body condition and metabolic function. In Thailand, use of tools to control elephants, such as the ankus (i.e., guide, hook) and chains, did not equate to poor welfare per se, nor did riding; however, improper uses were associated with higher wound scores and FGM concentrations. Foot health was good overall in both regions, with cracks being the most common problem, and better foot scores were found in elephants kept on softer substrates. Based on these findings, science-based guidelines are being developed in Thailand, while in North America, changes are being incorporated into elephant standards and husbandry resource guides. Management across venues can be improved by encouraging elephant exploration and exercise, establishing socially compatibility groups, ensuring proper use of tools, and providing balanced diets. We contend there is no “one-size-fits-all” management strategy to guarantee good welfare for elephants, but there are essential needs that must be met regardless of where or how they are managed. Future studies are needed to find ways to better socialize elephants; determine how temperament affects coping styles and resilience; study the importance of good handler-elephant relationships; identify more ways for elephants to engage with the environment; and assess the effect of life history on subsequent physiological and psychological well-being.