Elephants in Captivity

February 5, 2018

Elephants in Zoos

If you have seen an elephant up close then it was likely one in captivity. Many people view them in such settings as very calm creatures. Still, you have to always remember that they are wild animals. They can become aggressive in any location or situation so always be cautious around them.

Just about every zoo setting out there has a couple of elephants on display. That is the most common place for them to be placed in captivity. Others are part of a traveling circus and put on some amazing shows. There are also conservation preserves out there that have plenty of room for elephants to explore.

There are plenty of individuals out there though that strongly oppose to elephants being placed into captivity. This is because of their high intelligence. It is also due to the fact that by nature they need a wide area to explore. Those that are in the circus or that have to work are the ones that people are the most strongly opposed to.

This is because it is believed their dignity and their freedom is being violated. Those that are worked very hard often end up crippled at an early age and that can make it hard for them to care for themselves later on in life. Many work that their social needs aren’t being met either due to being in captivity.

Most of the time elephants adjust very well to being in captivity. They are social; especially the females so having at least two of them together is important. They can suffer from depression if one of them dies due to the strong bonds that they form. They can also show strong emotions that indicate to those caring for them that they aren’t doing well with the environment they are a part of.

Many elephants that are in captivity have been there since birth. These seem to adjust much better than those brought in from the wild later on. When this occurs signs of stress can be observed. One way that the animals seem to cope is by rocking back and forth for long periods of time.

In some instances those that rock constantly became aggressive so now most of the time efforts are in place to help the elephant adjust better when rocking starts so that nothing escalates from it. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that elephants in captivity are more likely to become aggressive than those in the wild.

This is a fact that just doesn’t sit very well with many people. They feel that elephants are too intelligent to be ordered around and to spend time chained up. They also don’t like to see them working endless hours like slaves. Many organizations including PETA have asked people to ban such exhibits at the zoo and to boycott circuses in support of reducing the number of elephants in captivity.

Over the years there has been quite a bit of controversy stirred up with elephants in captivity. There have been recorded instances of abuse on these animals which infuriate people. Once there was even an elephant that was part of the circus and always very calm. Then one day she attacked a man in the stands – it was later revealed that he had abused her long ago and she never forgot! The strength of these animals is hard to stop which is part of what makes them so dangerous should they decide to attack.

We have learned a great deal though about the health and anatomy of elephants through them being in captivity. However, we still don’t fully understand everything about them. We do know how to help them to live a long and healthy life while in captivity though.


Devra G. Kleiman, Katerina V. Thompson, Charlotte Kirk Baer. Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles and Techniques for Zoo Management, Second Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Rhea Ghosh. Gods in Chains. Foundation Books, 2005.



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