Several days ago, I received a shock that felt almost like a kick to the stomach. My first zoo, the place where I learned all the joys and sorrows of being a zookeeper, is letting me down in a gigantic way. Perhaps the romantic in me wanted to see the Dallas Zoo as a better place, even though they share the same big business mentality of most zoos, often sacrificing the animals well being to the promise of the almighty dollar. Still, it was my learning ground, the place where I first sank my teeth into the zoo keeping industry. In fact, many of the people I admire most still work there. My blinders remained firmly in place until I got a phone call from a friend to say the zoo had decided to send Jenny elephant to Mexico.
Jenny has lived at the Dallas Zoo for many years in an exhibit much too small and not at all suited to the largest land mammal. Her exhibit was at least updated since I worked there in the early nineties in an effort to meet the AZA's (American Association of Zoos and Aquariums) pitiful standards for this species. Their so-called standards still rate well below what the species needs for a healthy and long life. Most captive elephants die well before they reach the lifespan of their wild counterparts, and when you take into consideration that wild elephants face poachers, human encroachment, and predation to their young, a shorter life expectancy is pitiful indeed. However, only a very few forward thinking zoos have admitted what the industry has known for years. Elephants should not be kept in zoos. Perhaps the new sanctuaries cropping up around the country will provide what these animals need. It's too soon to tell for sure, but at least they offer something different, something new that comes much closer to giving these massive animals a chance for a longer, healthier captive life. What does all of this have to do with Jenny? Stick with me, I'm getting there, but first I have to give you some background.
Jenny, like many of her zoo counterparts, was taken from the wilds of Africa and brought to the Dallas Zoo through an animal broker. This does not mean that the Dallas Zoo necessarily sent someone out to hunt her down, wrangle her up, and load her into a truck. (There I go defending them again.) The truth is more likely something like this; Dallas put an add out via the AZA bulletin saying they were interested in acquiring an elephant, and the animal brokers contacted them listing what animals they had available. Jenny was one of two elephants the Dallas Zoo chose from the list. The other animal's name was Moja. I was told they were sisters by one of their keepers, but I have never verified this, and it could just be a romantic story passed down over the years. Regardless, I have often imagined Jenny and Moja huddled together in the back of some truck jarring their way out of the bush after having watched their mother die attempting to defend them. If this isn't truth, it's certainly plausible. I remember the two of them together, tightly bonded and affectionate. I have a photo of them on exhibit leaning side to side while they ate their hay. The day I took the photo, I watched them rub their trunks together and rumble, seeming more contented than I ever expected while standing in their tiny concrete world.
One morning I arrived at the zoo parking lot to hear a screaming sound rolling down the hill from the large mammal barn. It was followed by clashing and banging. I remember dropping my bag and running up the hill to find out what was happening. Although I was not an elephant keeper, I was close friends with the Animal Care Manager of the Large Mammal Barn, and I often accompanied him to feed Jenny and Moja treats and show my affection to them. Jenny liked to sniff my pockets and my shoes with her trunk and she often leaned against me and rumbled, a greeting elephants use among family members in the wild. Let's just say I'd grown very attached to her. I still have nightmares about the day I first heard Jenny's screams.
When I made it to the top of the hill, I realized Moja was lying dead in her stall. We later found out her heart had stopped due to a fast-acting disease that causes swelling and fluid in the linings around the organ. As was common practice in those days, Jenny was chained in the stall next to Moja unable to touch her friend. She would reach her trunk out, coming just shy of touching Moja, straining against her chains. Then, she would beat her head against the wall, scream, kick, and thrash around. A trail of wet was running down her face below both eyes. The keepers tried to calm her, but they couldn't. Eventually, the zoo administrators ordered Moja hooked up to a crane, and they dragged her out of the building and off exhibit where she wouldn't be seen by the public when they arrived. The whole time, Jenny beat her head, yelling and thrashing until the walls rattled.
Jenny became volatile after that day, prone to uncontrollable rages, lashing out at her keepers. For safety, the zoo was forced to change their management style with elephants in order to keep all physical contact between Jenny and her keepers to a minimum. Jenny lost the touch of her companion and the touch of her keepers virtually on the same day. She has yet to fully recover. Over the years, the zoo has given her anti-depressants, even tranquilizers, to calm her. They have also tried several other companion elephants, but Jenny refused most of them. Sometimes, loud noises would set her off, things like music during special events, loud machinery, strange vehicles, or equipment being used in the area. She has broken the cables in her exhibit with her head more than once during her rages. Eventually, after tireless effort from her keepers, Jenny was introduced to and had finally accepted another African elephant companion.
The keepers feel Jenny has been making progress, and I believe them. No one works harder and cares more for the animal than the underpaid and undervalued zookeepers. For the last few years, Jenny seemed a bit more content with her new elephant friend. Unfortunately, that animal recently died. I cannot imagine what this latest loss has done to Jenny. To make a sad story worse, the zoo administrators have made a horrifying choice for her. A choice I doubt her keepers can advocate, although I'm betting they would never say so publicly if they value their jobs. Jenny is being sent to Africam in Mexico, a drive-thru safari park. This new zoo has no African Elephants and their staff has only experienced working with Asians, which by nature are much more docile. Even the most seasoned veteran keepers are risking life and limb every time they come in contact with Jenny in a rage. Why would anyone send her off to a place with no experience caring for animals of her nature?
If that's not enough to convince you, remember that Jenny has often gone into rages when loud noises are in the vicinity, and she has broken through steel cables with her head. Yet, the Dallas Zoo is sending her to a drive-thru park where she will be exposed daily to cars. I understand there will be nothing holding her back from the unsuspecting visitors but a mote and some hot wire. I have witnessed elephants who learned to ground hot wire against their tusks in order to keep from being shocked so they could reach a branch of browse on the other side. Hot wire will not stop Jenny in a rage. Yet the Dallas Zoo refuses to even consider sending Jenny to The Elephant Sanctuary right here in Tennessee. She could live in a place where she will be off exhibit on hundreds of acres with a quiet, calm environment and numerous other African elephants. At the very least, the Dallas Zoo could keep Jenny and find her another companion animal. Apparently, they would rather send her to another country without even the benefit of animal rights laws to protect her. Jenny deserves better, and the Dallas Zoo should be ashamed!