Elephants form a heart shape with their trunks while the sun sets in the background. Reuters/Sukree Sukplang

Animal-rights groups and the zoo industry have long been at odds over the ethics of keeping elephants in captivity, and new research on the issue is not likely to bridge that divide -- or even narrow it.

At the annual conference of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) in Kansas City this month, researchers presented the initial findings of an exhaustive three-year study that they hope will provide zoos with the data and tools they need to optimize elephant care. It’s being pitched as the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, and in another industry, it might have been seen by opponents as a good first step. Not so in the incongruous world of elephant welfare.

“We’re very skeptical that this study will lead to any significant improvements for elephants,” said Nicole Meyer, an activist with the animal-rights group In Defense of Animals (IDA). “We see this as a reaction to years of criticism that elephants are faring poorly in zoos.”

Few would argue that such criticism is not well-founded. Elephants, which can roam 20 to 50 miles in the wild, suffer from a host of health issues as a result of captivity, including foot and joint problems, low fertility and significantly shortened life spans.

Meyer, who is director of IDA’s Elephant Protection Campaign, saw the researchers’ initial presentation at the AZA conference. She called the findings “self-congratulatory,” an attempt by the zoo industry to validate its longstanding practice of keeping elephants in what are invariably extreme conditions.

“Most zoos are unable to provide elephants with the space and social dynamics that they need to thrive,” Meyer said. “There are some zoos out there that do a better job, and we acknowledge that. But in general, elephants are earth’s largest land mammal. They need space. They need exercise to stay healthy. They need to be with a multigenerational herd in order to socialize properly.”

The researchers, of course, see things differently. Cheryl Meehan, an animal scientist and the study’s consulting project manager, said the job of her team was not to plot an impractical escape route for captive elephants, but to look at the current practices within zoos and provide a status report on how elephants are performing.

“We were bound by the design of the study to look at reality,” she told International Business Times. “Our job was to look at how elephant management and care is currently being practiced, and to highlight where there are opportunities to enhance that practice.”

Ultimately, the disagreement is less about scientific method than two competing ideologies: Should elephants be kept in zoos or do they belong in natural-habitat refuges -- like the 2,700-acre Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn.? Animal-rights groups say the latter choice clearly provides elephants with an environment that more closely simulates their natural habitat, but Meehan insists that criticizing zoo facilities based on comparisons to the wild is a faulty argument, one fraught with complexities that have yet to be scientifically studied.

“It’s not a fair criticism,” she said. “That’s a connection of two different pieces of information without the actual research having been done to let us know if it’s a valid connection.”

Funded with an $800,000 leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the zoo-welfare study was conducted by a team of 27 researchers, handpicked by the Honolulu Zoo Society, which received the grant. It included the cooperation of 70 AZA-accredited zoos, although Meehan said the AZA was not involved in the research. The study team, along with dozens of research assistants from various disciplines, evaluated 240 zoo elephants for body condition. They also examined 2,500 hours of videotaped elephant footage, and thousands of serum and fecal samples, and they tracked elephants’ movements using more than 7 million GPS data points.

Meyer was not impressed. She said many of the initial findings presented at the conference simply confirmed what animal-rights groups have been saying all along -- including the need for softer substrates and a correlation between improved body condition and increased exercise. What’s more, she worries that the zoo industry will attempt to use the research a way of validating its own practices, thereby giving it a convenient excuse to, at best, make a few marginal changes and, at worst, conduct business as usual.

“We’re concerned that they’ll be using this study as their baseline for anything they do moving forward,” she said.

Meehan said she is not surprised that her study is being criticized by an animal-rights group, adding that the two sides simply have incompatible objectives.

“It becomes difficult to carry on conversations because there are different goals and different perspectives,” she said.

At least, that’s one point on which they both seem to agree. While Meyer said she is looking forward to reading the full results of the study when they are published in the months ahead, she does not expect to change her mind on zoo facilities anytime soon.

“The challenge that elephants face in captivity and zoo environments are extreme,” she said. “The thing that will never change for elephants in captivity is that they’re in captivity.”

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