By Robert Meyerowitz
When it was announced late in May that the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo would welcome a fifth African elephant, Joni, from the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina, it was greeted as good news in many quarters.
Joni is 44, which is old for a captive elephant. Since she was taken from the wild as a 2-year-old, she's spent much of her life alone. Female African elephants are social animals that don't fare well in isolation. The national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has regulations stipulating that zoos that keep elephants now must have at least three.
At the same time, people increasingly have campaigned to have elephants in cold-climate zoos, such as Cheyenne Mountain, and elderly and solitary elephants, such as Joni, moved to animal sanctuaries. There they have more room to roam and better weather. Last year, three African elephants were moved from the Toronto Zoo to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif., culminating a long and ultimately successful struggle by animal rights activists and others.
Greenville Zoo director Jeff Bullock says his zoo weighed multiple options for Joni, including animal sanctuaries. But the Greenville Zoo, he says, was impressed by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's work with aging elephants.
"They can meet her medical needs better," he says. "They have a better chance of keeping her healthy longer."
Delci Winders, deputy general counsel for the PETA Foundation, which provides legal services for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and who tracks issues surrounding captive elephants, says her organization is happy Joni will have the company of other elephants — but adds that Bullock is mistaken. "Just being able to be out in that large amount of space [that a sanctuary can provide\ and roam is one of the best things for that animal to have," she says, "and she's not going to have that at a zoo."
PAWS is one of two principal elephant sanctuaries in the country. Ed Stewart, its co-founder and president, says Joni going to Cheyenne Mountain "could turn out to be a great thing for all the elephants at the zoo, and I hope that's what happens." But if Greenville considered sending her to PAWS, he says, it would be news to him. In general, if an elephant is to be moved from an AZA-accredited zoo, people who run zoos "will do anything to keep it from going to a sanctuary," he says.
"In captivity, they're considered old at 40 years. In the wild, they can give birth at 60. It's an indictment of captivity that they get arthritis, foot problems," from being confined. "We don't have a zoo budget, but we have an incredible staff and we take care of elderly elephants every day."
San Andreas also is warmer year-round than Colorado Springs. Elephants can stand only limited exposure outdoors below 40 degrees. But Cheyenne Mountain Zoo president Bob Chastain says his zoo's elephant barn has conventional heating, infrared heating and a heated concrete floor.
No date for Joni's move has been set, pending the results of medical tests. Greenville elephant manager Christine Dear says Joni should fit right in with the Colorado herd, composed of Kimba, 37; Lucky, 34; Malaika, 28; and Jambo, 31. Chastain compares Joni's arrival to "moving your 80-year-old grandmother in with a 50-year-old grandmother."
Additional reporting by Griffin Swartzell.