Study suggests community outweighs home size for elephants in zoos

elephants socializing
CC BY 2.0 Sriram Jagannathan

A booming tiny house movement among people around the world promotes the experience that less space equals happier living.

So please forgive any anthropomorphizing, as I rejoice in the conclusion of a recent study that the world's largest land mammals, elephants, might blog about tiny house benefits ... if they could blog. It appears that the elephant bloggers would push the cohousing concept as the root of happiness.

This is the surprising conclusion reached in the largest study to date on elephant welfare. And it comes at a good time, as people are questioning the practice of keeping animals in zoos at all; even where animals are kept in rescue sanctuaries or for the preservation of the species, the topic of the welfare of these intelligent and wild beasts must be addressed.

elephant welfarePLOS ONE/Promo image

The effort to better understand elephant welfare consists of nine independent studies covering 255 African and Asian elephants in 68 zoos. Scientists used an array of welfare indicators, including:

  • the frequency of stereotypical behaviors such as swaying or rocking that indicate stress;
  • foot and musculo-skeletal health;
  • reproductive health;
  • and recumbency, or resting duration.

Some of the results were no-brainers: the more time spent on hard surfaces, the more problems with foot health. But the impact of the size of enclosures threw the researchers for a loop. It seems that larger enclosures do not correlate with happier animals. Cheryl Meehan, UC Davis staff research associate, says

“We expected to find associations between the size of zoo exhibits and welfare, but space ended up being of minor importance when compared to social factors and management practices such as enrichment programs.”

So it seems that elephant quality of life parallels our human experience: both people and pachyderms need good company, fun challenges, and design-for-purpose more than we need McMansions. So never mind all that blah, blah about how great it can be not to carry a huge mortgage or the lovely sense of security that arises from owning your own place. Just take it from the elephants: it's not about the size, it's the quality of life that counts.

And as we continue to ask ourselves about the propriety of holding animals in zoos, research must continue on the question of why three quarters of the elephants studied were found to engage in stress-associated behaviors, how this compares to the life experience of elephants in the wild, and whether the management recommendations arising from the current work succeed in reducing that number.

All of the studies are published under a single overview in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE.

Study suggests community outweighs home size for elephants in zoos
The world's largest land mammal could embrace the tiny home cohousing movement.

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