Great Expectations

Elephant researchers believe they can boost captive-animal reproduction rates and reverse a potential population crash in zoos.

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Anew method, known as protected contact, favors rewards over force. Human contact is limited, and a physical barrier—such as fixed metal bars—remains between animal and handler. The Oakland Zoo first adopted the approach in 1991 after Dohani’s father, Smokey, killed a handler. It was the nation’s first zoo to practice protected contact with all of its elephants. (About half of U.S. zoos now use the method to manage some elephants.)


Dohani’s death hasn’t done much to reassure critics of protected contact. Could more active involvement have saved Lisa from killing Dohani? “My guess is that had we even been standing right there in the stall with her, whatever happened, happened so fast that we probably would not have even been able to stop it,” says Kinzley. And Parrott points out that if the goal of captive breeding is to allow elephants a more normal life, there has to be a limit to human intervention. “At some point,” he says, “nature has to be allowed to be nature.”


The difficulties of captive breeding have led some to conclude that it is a waste of precious resources. Carol Buckley, cofounder of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, says money and effort should be spent preserving wild elephant habitat rather than creating new babies behind bars. “At this point, it’s irresponsible for us to be breeding elephants in captivity,” she says. “It is impossible for zoos in an urban setting to provide a life for captive elephants that reflects their natural life.”


The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits and sets standards for the facilities, banned the keeping of solitary elephants in 2001. Some zoo professionals hope that the ban will increase the captive elephant population, enabling more animals to stay in natal groups and perhaps breed more readily on their own. “I see subsequent generations of captive elephants as being good mothers, and our not having to play such a large role,” says Olson.


At the Oakland Zoo, staffers plan to acquire another bull elephant to breed with Lisa. Should she give birth again, says Parrott, the zoo will maintain a round-the-clock watch for a month after the delivery.


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