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‘NOTHING TO DO, NOWHERE TO GO’: What happens when elephants live alone

The stresses of captivity can change the brain. In captive wild animals, one effect can be stereotypies — repetitive, seemingly pointless behaviors, such as a monkey pulling his hair out. For a solitary captive elephant, long-term isolation can trigger pacing, head bobbing, rocking, or swaying, among other repetitive behaviors.

RACHEL FOBAR: On a raw December day, as Christmas music blares over loudspeakers, an African elephant named Asha walks in tight circles in an enclosure at Natural Bridge Zoo, a roadside attraction in Virginia. Her living quarters consist of a barn and three outdoor yards—a fenced patch of grass about 90 by 40 feet, a dirt patch with a few logs scattered about, and a yard where she gives rides to children for $15 and her massive feet have worn a ring into the grass. Her space is barren—no shrubs, trees, or watering holes.

Elephants, like humans, are social animals. In the wild, females typically live in herds of eight or more, yet Asha, who’s nearly 40 years old, has been confined mostly alone for more than 30 years… Decades of research indicates that anyone who spends more than 10 days in involuntary solitude suffers at least some emotional, cognitive, social, and physical health effects, ranging from trouble sleeping to panic attacks and hallucinations.

Neuroscientist Bob Jacobs of Colorado College, who has studied both human and animal brains, says other social mammals may react similarly. “In general, all mammals follow the same basic blueprints in terms of brain structure and function,” he says… “From everything we know about the brain, there’s no reason to think that an elephant brain would react any differently to solitary confinement than a human brain,” Jacobs says. For better or for worse, he says, brains of all types are designed for specific environments, and they’re sensitive to changes in those environments…

In the wild, much of elephants’ brain stimulation comes from other elephants, says Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior specialist and National Geographic Explorer. They’re always moving—listening, sniffing, playing—whereas solitary captive elephants are “not very animated”—they have no other elephants to interact with and nowhere to explore, she says. (Read about Poole’s African Elephant Ethogram, the most comprehensive audiovisual library ever made of African savanna elephant behavior.)

Male elephants spend 10 to 14 years with their mothers before going off to form their own bonded “bachelor groups.” Females stay with their mothers all their lives, in multigenerational social groups as large as 50. “Growing up in a social context, or in a family, is critical to their development,” Poole says, and social interactions remain central to their well-being throughout their lives…

At Natural Bridge Zoo, Asha spends hours circling her yard, grazing quietly. Veterinarian Philip Ensley, who worked with elephants at San Diego Zoo for nearly 30 years, visited the zoo in September to observe her and assess her health for the nonprofit Free All Captive Elephants, one of many animal advocacy groups that has criticized Asha’s conditions. In a private report shared with National Geographic, he noted that Asha swayed back and forth, shifted her weight off certain limbs (potentially indicating arthritis or joint disease, which are common in captive elephants), and appeared “unstimulated” and “detached.” “It is inappropriate in the field of care and management of captive elephants to keep a female alone,” he concluded in the report. The lack of a companion “is causing Asha to suffer.”

The stresses of captivity can change the brain, Jacobs says. In captive wild animals, one effect can be stereotypies—repetitive, seemingly pointless behaviors, such as a monkey pulling its hair out. They’re most often displayed by bored, social animals in captivity and are rarely seen in the wild. For a solitary captive elephant, the loss of control over its environment and the lack of stimulation caused by long-term isolation can trigger pacing, head bobbing, rocking, or swaying, among other repetitive behaviors.

In a 2017 report on solitary captive elephants in 14 nationally accredited zoos in Japan, it was noted that nearly all displayed stereotypic behaviors. “If there’s a behavioral issue or a psychological issue, there’s a neural issue underlying it,” Jacobs says. Repetitive behaviors, according to studies in humans and other animals, have been associated with disruption in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that helps control voluntary movements.

In swaying or pacing elephants, their basal ganglia likely are so disrupted that they can’t stop these repetitive actions, Jacobs says. (This is also true for humans who have conditions involving basal ganglia damage, such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, he says, which can cause involuntary movements and debilitating tremors.)

For wild animals in captivity, that kind of brain damage is believed to be associated with a lack of stimulation. “The brain thrives on stimulation,” Jacobs says. Without it, dendrites shrink from lack of use, and capillaries decrease in diameter, reducing blood flow to the brain. A 2018 study on the effects of prolonged isolation on the brains of mice found a 20-percent reduction in their neurons. “‘Use it or lose it’—it applies to muscles, but it also applies to the brain,” he says.

Stress, whether it’s caused by isolation or something else, also activates the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, which releases cortisol into the bloodstream, giving the body a boost of energy to respond to the perceived threat. When the fight-or-flight response is stimulated continuously, it eventually damages nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is central to learning and memory. In humans, a compromised hippocampus is often associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and other stress-related illnesses.

An elephant alone in captivity has “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see, no one to communicate with,” Poole says. “Why is this even still allowed for these animals that we know so much about? Why aren’t our laws doing something about it?” says Vermont Law School’s Delcianna Winders. When pushed to surrender solitary elephants to sanctuaries, zoos may argue that the animal is better off staying put. She’s too old, too sick, or doesn’t like the company of other elephants, they say. That’s the argument Bronx Zoo makes for Happy, a 51-year-old Asian elephant who’s at the center of a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) arguing that she’s entitled to legal rights, including freedom from imprisonment.

Bronx Zoo has a second elephant, named Patty, who also is kept alone. Happy and Patty don’t get along, according to zoo officials, though they can see each other through the fence separating their enclosures and occasionally touch each other. Director James Breheny says Happy “is more comfortable with her keepers and with safe barriers between her and other elephants” and that those who criticize her situation “know nothing of our individual animal, her personality, preferences, or tendencies.” The NhRP contends that Happy would enjoy the company of other elephants, having lived with a companion named Grumpy for 25 years until that elephant’s death in 2002. New York’s highest court has agreed to hear Happy’s case, but a date hasn’t been set…

Transferring elephants can be risky, and a number have died during or shortly after being moved, though the causes of their deaths have been hotly debated. But when elephants settle in at sanctuaries, many formerly solitary, submissive, or shy animals open up—increasing their interactions with others and reducing their stereotypies. Within six months of her transfer to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an elephant named Sissy—who had killed one of her handlers at Frank Buck Zoo, in Gainesville, Texas, and was characterized as “antisocial”—formed close friendships with other elephants; more than 20 years later, she’s thriving peaceably.

After 10 years alone in Alaska Zoo, an African elephant named Maggie became one of the most social members of the herd at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary, in California, according to Catherine Doyle, the director of science, research, and advocacy. Zoo officials had predicted that because she was sometimes aggressive toward her former companion, who died in 1997, she might not get along with other elephants. (PAWS now has one elephant in isolation because her Asian elephant companions died. As a sanctuary, PAWS does not breed or buy elephants)…

The future is uncertain for captive elephants in the U.S., especially as the debate intensifies over whether certain highly intelligent, social species should be in kept captivity at all. “The more evidence you look at … the more you have to come to the conclusion that it is not ethically justifiable to keep these animals in captivity,” says neuroscientist Bob Jacobs, reflecting on his latest research. Even large zoos are “way too small” for such large animals, he says, but solitary elephants held in small enclosures—“that’s probably about as bad as it could get”. SOURCE…


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