Carla and Koala’s lives at the Rio zoo epitomize the lack of space and understanding of elephant behavior that plague captive elephant management around the world. Koala is a long term resident of the Rio Zoo. Carla used to live in another zoo with 2 other Asian elephants until she escaped from the zoo, running throughout the city, she eventually stopped at a river, calmly bathing. She had sought out something so simple and natural, but something she had been deprived of for so long. After the incident, the zoo decided to get rid of her, moving her to the Rio zoo, stating that she was very temperamental and didn’t get along with their other elephants.
Introductions between Carla and Koala did not go well according to staff, there was extensive ear flapping and vocalizations; they assumed Carla was being aggressive, and the two were separated never to be put together again. Without being there it is hard to decipher past behavior, but what they describe can also be excited elephant behavior. Unfortunately, Carla again wears the label of “aggressive” and spends most of her days in her small cement room. Carla and Koala are not allowed in their separate yards at the same time, so while one is in their individual yard, the other is closed away. From what we were told, Carla is almost always closed in her structure while Koala gets to wander her limited space next door.
There is a very strong feeling of disconnect associated with Carla, she doesn’t respond to Koala when she approaches her corner (with a barrier between them), she just stares into space, swaying rhythmically, barely present in her own body. She was the hardest elephant to walk away from. From all of the years of experience in sanctuary we know there are many physical issues that elephants arrive with, but the emotional issues are the deepest wounds and these are the hardest for them to heal from. In most situations when we leave captive elephants in need we can usually find something positive to say to help give them something to hang on to until a better option exists, i.e. at least they have a close companion, but here, we are left with a void, all we want to do is take them to a home where they can heal.
Update: December 2016
Ownership of the zoo has shifted to a private company, who has made some changes at the zoo. They reinforced the barrier separating Carla and Koala, and now the elephants are allowed out of their little cement areas at the same time. The photos on this page are from a visit in December of 2016 by two of our board members. Carla’s body condition has improved now that she is not closed in almost every day. Unfortunately Koala’s condition seems to have deteriorated. We have no explanation for this, just an observation when comparing photos from our prior visit.