MyView: National group should be called to task for contract exploitation

by: COURTESY OF MICHAEL DURHAM THE OREGON ZOO - One-day old Asian elephant calf Lily stayed in the elephant maternity ward with her mother Rose-Tu at the Oregon Zoo.   The Oregon Zoo faces mounting national criticism, instead of congratulatory celebration, in the wake of one of the most highly anticipated births within the zoo industry: a baby elephant.

Two days after Rose-Tu gave birth to the zoo’s 28th baby elephant, little Lily, The Seattle Times published an investigative series calling attention to the ugly truth that zoos are desperate to hide: elephants are suffering in zoos across the U.S. The Seattle Times also uncovered something else the Oregon Zoo surely would have preferred to keep under wraps: Rose-Tu’s baby is owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, a notorious elephant-rental facility.

Now, the zoo is scrambling to explain its questionable decision to enter into a contract with a facility that’s been caught on tape beating and electric-shocking baby elephants.

Unlike typical contracts, this one appears to be open to negotiation — or not. According to the contract, HTWT can claim ownership of the calf when she is a month old.

While HTWT states it has no intention of taking the baby, the Oregon Zoo’s executive director has yet to provide any guarantee that HTWT will not claim the calf now, or in the future. Instead, the Oregon Zoo appears to operate on the assumption that both parties will act out of good faith and a mutual love for elephants, and that the baby will be allowed to stay with her mother forever.

If this was the case, a mere handshake would have sufficed instead of a contract. (The zoo has maintained that Lily will stay.)

The uncomfortable situation in which the Oregon Zoo finds itself illustrates a far larger problem facing the zoo industry — the current population of elephants in North American zoos is unsustainable and could be extinct within the next 50 years. Breeding elephants in U.S. zoos is proving to be a massive failure with an infant mortality rate of 40 percent. This is a dire situation for an industry that pays its bills on the backs of babies. Now, zoos are desperate to pursue any measure to produce additional elephants.

The contract between the Oregon Zoo and HTWT also raises this question: How many other zoos are willing to, or are already contracting with, companies that barter elephants for a chance at a calf? The issue also puts a spotlight on the overall credibility of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association — the industry organization that oversees zoos and appears to sanction elephant exploitation through these types of shady contracts. The Oregon Zoo and HTWT are AZA-affiliated.

To that end, can the public trust the AZA if it accredits a zoo that’s already sent six baby elephants to circuses and is under contract with yet another organization that brutally trains elephants to perform tricks?

Oh, and did we mention Samudra, the brother of the Rose-Tu’s new baby? Under the terms of the contract, HTWT can snatch him up, too, if the zoo ever has difficulty finding space for him.

Nicole Meyer is director of the Wild & Free Anti-Captivity Campaign of In Defense of Animals, San Rafael, Calif.

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