Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Animal Advocates Criticize Zoo’s Elephant Facility

National group says Milwaukee zoo way too small, 'a prison' for its elephants

By - Jan 30th, 2023 08:56 pm
Elephants at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo from Milwaukee County Zoo.

Elephants at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo from Milwaukee County Zoo.

The Milwaukee County Zoo has once again been named in a rundown of the worst institutions for elephants by an organization that advocates for animals in captivity.

In Defense of Animals (IDA), which is against the captivity of elephants in any zoo, released its annual report card listing the 10 zoos it deems to be the worst in the U.S. for elephants. While Milwaukee did not make the list, it was given a “dishonorable mention.” The organization’s criticism of the Milwaukee zoo’s elephant exhibit is focused on the size of the elephant facility and the living area afforded the animals.

“The Milwaukee Zoo is a prison for three African elephants, Ruth, Brittany, and its most recent addition, Belle,” said Courtney Scott, elephant consultant for in defense of animals, in a statement. “The zoo constructed a 1.6-acre elephant exhibit in 2019, which it praises for being bigger than its previous exhibit. We shudder to think of the inadequacy of the zoo’s previous elephant enclosure, let alone its new and ‘improved’ one.”

A spokesperson for the zoo did not respond to a request by Urban Milwaukee for comment on the organization’s criticism.

Elephants are regularly among the most popular exhibits at the zoo. There have been elephants in Milwaukee for more than 100 years, since they were first shown in Washinton Park in 1907.

Approximately a decade ago, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the national accrediting body for these types of institutions, changed its accreditation standards. As a result, the Milwaukee County Zoo needed a larger elephant exhibit area to maintain its accreditation. In 2016, construction began on the new $16.6 million exhibit. The elephants were moved there in 2019.

The new elephant facility, part of the zoo’s Adventure Africa exhibit, includes an approximately 1.6 acre outdoor exhibit area for the animals and a 20,000-square-foot indoor facility. The AZA standards call for an outdoor area of at least 5,400 square feet per animal and an indoor space of at least 400 to 600 square feet per animal, with 600 square feet being the minimum for an adult animal with a calf.

These standards are well below what the zoo now offers. But even those, according to the IDA, are shockingly small areas for elephants, which the organization said can roam up to a hundred miles a day in their natural habitat. The organization pointed to data found in a report by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and calculated that the elephants in Milwaukee could cross their enclosure in approximately 40 seconds.

“Amusement parks like Milwaukee Zoo offer ‘enrichment’ in a vain attempt to break the boredom of the elephants’ existence,” the organization said. “But the compensation offered in exchange for their freedom seems like a cruel joke. No amount of popcorn from Milwaukee Zoo’s treat dispenser can make up for forcing these elephants to suffer an extreme lack of space.”

African Elephants are classified as an endangered species. In 2020, the Milwaukee zoo considered acquiring a fourth such elephant from the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium but ultimately backed off.

Wisconsin’s climate does not provide for weather that is comparable to what the elephants would find in their natural habitat. And the IDA said the elephants, which they consider cramped even in the outdoor exhibit, tend to spend most of Wisconsin’s “bitterly cold winters” indoors. Other zoos in the Midwest have phased out their elephant exhibits. Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo has not had an elephant since 2010, and Brookfield Zoo in a nearby Cook County suburb hasn’t had an elephant since 2005.

“Elephants need vast spaces, way more than any zoo can provide,” said Marilyn Kroplick, M.D., the IDA president. “We encourage zoos to look to accredited elephant sanctuaries which respect elephant autonomy, do not breed elephants or put them on public display, and provide hundreds or even thousands of acres for elephants to roam.”

Update: A previous version of the story said the Milwaukee County Zoo received an “honorable mention.” It received a “dishonorable mention.”

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Categories: Environment, MKE County

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