Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The ABQ BioPark Zoo is one of the biggest visitor attractions in the state, and the zoo’s elephant herd is among the most popular attractions at the zoo, bolstered by the recent construction of a shaded overlook deck for better viewing opportunities.
On Tuesday, the animal protection organization, In Defense of Animals, or IDA, threw its own shade at the zoo’s elephant exhibit, ranking the BioPark Zoo as No. 2 on its 2021 list of the 10 worst zoos for elephants in North America.
In a statement from IDA, comedian Ricky Gervais and musician Moby both called for the 10 facilities to release their elephants to accredited sanctuaries.
ABQ BioPark Associate Director Bob Lee, who has specialized in elephant care and management for more than 20 years, took issue with much of what was in the IDA assessment.
IDA noted, and Lee confirmed, that “every baby elephant born at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in the last decade has died” from elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, or EEHV. They include Jazmine, who died in January, Thorn, who died in December, and Daizy, who died in 2015. All were born to mother Rozie.
There are currently four Asian elephants living in the zoo’s 5-acre elephant habitat.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, which accredits the BioPark Zoo, could not be reached for comment.
IDA spokeswoman Fleur Dawes told the Journal on Tuesday that all zoos in the United States, including AZA zoos, have an infant elephant mortality rate of 40%, which is three times higher than those born in their indigenous habitats.
Further, she said, it has been more than a quarter century since EEHV was first documented, and “AZA accredited zoos have still been unable to prevent the deaths.”
Lee, however, pointed out that it was veterinarians and researchers at AZA accredited zoos who originally identified the virus and “collectively are working to find a cure.”
It is now known that EEHV is endemic in Asian and African elephant populations, and when it expresses itself it is typically in elephants 8 years old or younger.
Dawes said elephants in the wild do not contract the illness at the same high rate as those living in zoos.
But the lack of extensive testing for EEHV in wild elephant populations, said Lee, makes it difficult to know how many of these animals are affected by the illness.
Dawes also said that zoo breeding programs “are absolutely a failure,” and rather than promote conservation, zoos – including AZA accredited facilities – are consumers of elephants from the wild.
While it is true that the number of newborn elephants in zoos isn’t keeping pace with the number of zoo elephants who die from old age, Lee said “the AZA has not imported Asian elephants (from the wild) in decades.”
Some wild African elephants were provided to AZA zoos in recent years from a country where the native habitat could no longer support the number of animals, “but it was a conservation effort done in conjunction with the wildlife department of that African country,” Lee said.
According to the IDA, no zoo anywhere can provide enough roaming acreage for elephants, and they would be better off in large accredited sanctuaries.
The elephant habitat at the BioPark Zoo in particular was singled out after an in-person visit by an IDA representative, Dawes said. Their conclusion was the habitat is not only too small, but also “drab” and “barren,” and located “next to a busy highway constantly barraged by traffic sounds” and vibrations that are detrimental to an elephant’s acute hearing.
“I think it shows they (IDA) don’t know the local community and they don’t know the work that we do,” Lee said.
“I appreciate that they’re trying to do the right thing by the animals, but they don’t give a full picture of what is occurring.”
The BioPark Zoo remains “committed to the survival of the species,” Lee said. “Our facilities are set up and based on the biological, psychological and physiological needs of the animals we care for. There’s a lot of science that goes into what we do, and we are committed to improving every day. We are never satisfied and are always looking to do more. That’s where our focus is.”
The other zoos that made the IDA’s worst list include:
Edmonton Valley Zoo, Alberta, Canada; Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden; Phoenix Zoo; Bronx Zoo; Oklahoma City Zoo; Toledo Zoo & Aquarium; Los Angeles Zoo; Fresno Chaffee Zoo; and the Audubon Zoo, New Orleans.
Making the Hall of Shame – not as bad as the worst 10 but still nothing to brag about – was The Preserve, in Fredericksburg, Texas; and a Dishonorable Mention was given to the Oregon Zoo in Portland.