Why Sanctuary is a Better Choice: Op-Ed Piece by co-founder Scott Blais

By Scott Blais
Scott Blais is CEO of
Global Sanctuary for Elephants,
Oriental, N.C.
April 21, 2014 12:00 AM

A recent opinion piece by Buttonwood Park Zoo Director Keith Lovett (“Guest View: Good decisions on elephants require more than good intentions,” April 9) lambasted zoo critics, stating that they are “poaching documents for words or phrases that, taken out of context or misconstrued, lend themselves to sensational allegations.” Yet, he apparently is not above using this tactic himself.

In his op ed, Mr. Lovett claimed he had recently spoken with “a founder of The Elephant Sanctuary who acknowledged occasional aggression among their herd.” He further stated, “That is no surprise, because normal behavior includes physical interaction and occasional mild aggression.”

Mr. Lovett is referring to a conversation he recently had with me during a conference call to discuss the benefits of relocating Ruth and Emily to a sanctuary. Unfortunately, he chose to use a sound bite taken entirely out of very important context.

In my experience — which spans more than 25 years of hands-on caring for elephants — conflict is not entirely unexpected among elephants. But the critical difference between a sanctuary and the Buttonwood Park Zoo is that elephants in a sanctuary can choose to avoid conflict because they have the space to walk away from it.

When elephants are provided with autonomy and space, they make decisions that lead toward a more cooperative life. While at the sanctuary, I witnessed elephants remove themselves from situations that they knew could trigger them to act out; they learned to understand and control their behavior within a social context. If necessary, elephants at a sanctuary can be separated, but they are not held in isolation or confined to a small area, as they would be in zoos. They can roam a separate habitat ranging from 20 to 200 acres in size.

At Buttonwood, the elephants cannot avoid confrontation — they have nowhere to go. This apparently has led to aberrant aggression and painful physical altercations that especially affect Ruth. Emily once bit off 6 inches of Ruth’s tail. I would not characterize that as “mild aggression” or glibly write it off as elephants being elephants. This is not natural behavior for female Asian elephants.

Hostile and aggressive acts between female elephants are a direct result of captivity. Because of the restricted nature of zoo exhibits, some elephants are forced to live on the defensive. In nature, elephants are a peaceful species, understanding, compassionate and non-confrontational. With the proper conditions and nurturing, aberrant aggressive behavior can be reversed. The protection, space, autonomy and qualified care offered by sanctuaries provide this opportunity and encourage elephants to return to their natural state of being.

I personally have worked with elephants who came from extremely impoverished situations: elephants who lived in isolation for more than 40 years, elephants who lived in one zoo for their entire lives and had never walked on grass, and elephants with substantially greater physical problems than those suffered by Ruth and Emily. Virtually all melded into sanctuary life with ease and grace. Not to say that it was always seamless. Moving to any new facility is a big adjustment, but nature soon takes over as the elephants learn to wander, explore and establish relationships within a larger kindred group.

I do not doubt that Ruth and Emily have keepers who do the best they can in caring for them, given their limitations — my concern is the insufficient physical and social conditions for the elephants. But I do doubt the decision to keep Ruth and Emily at the zoo and the justification that this is in their best interest.

Tellingly, during our conversation Mr. Lovett confided that he wished he could offer Emily and Ruth more space. He said the planned exhibit expansion is minimal due to the zoo’s limitations, and he wished he could do more. The truth is there is an option that can satisfy his wishes for Emily and Ruth: a sanctuary.

Mr. Lovett may claim that he carefully analyzed the elephants’ situation to make the most informed decision possible, but he did not visit or speak directly with either of the two U.S. elephant sanctuaries. Therefore, the decision to keep Ruth and Emily at the Buttonwood Park Zoo is not a fully informed choice. The decision clearly was made in the best interest of the zoo and not the elephants, otherwise Mr. Lovett would have explored all possible options.

I sincerely hope the Buttonwood Park Zoo will reconsider the decision to keep Emily and Ruth in their current inadequate conditions. Unlike the elephants, the zoo — and the city of New Bedford — have a choice: It is the choice between keeping Ruth and Emily as they are for the rest of their lives or giving them a chance to truly live as elephants.


To be taken to the original article, click here.

To read the article that Scott is responding to, click here.

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