Home Op-eds The logical fallacy of zoo elephant captivity and conservation

Photo: Elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo

I recently read a letter in the Seattle Times from a reader who believed the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo should remain there, rather than be retired to a sanctuary, so that these elephants can make people aware of conservation efforts needed for wild elephants.  (See letter “Keep the Exhibit.”)

It is a logical fallacy to state that keeping elephants in zoos promotes conservation of wild elephants. This claim creates a false relationship between captivity and conservation so as to assume that one can influence the other.

Not only has this relationship been shown to be incorrect by sociological research (reference), but this statement is like saying that we can fight crime in New York City by planting flowers in Seattle.  To stop the poaching of wild elephants in Africa and Asia, we must address the direct issues that lead to poaching such as poverty and the ivory trade.

Both poaching and captivity of elephants in zoos and circus are crimes against elephants.  To state that the latter prevents the former is like saying that being robbed by a stranger prevents you from being assaulted by a stranger.  Crimes against elephants must be dealt with at the source in Africa, Asia and Seattle.

About Christie Lagally

Christie Lagally is a freelance writer, columnist and activist and founder of Living Humane Online. Christie’s published work was featured in the Richmond News from 2009 – 2011. Currently, Christie writes a column called “Among the animals” for the Pacific Publishing Company’s City Living Seattle paper. Her work has recently been published in Northwest Pet Magazine and Northwest Prime Time.

5 replies to this post
  1. You are so right, Christie! Thanks for shining a bright light on the absurdity and self-interest of the zoo’s illogical claim that it needs to confine elephants in Seattle to conserve elephants in Africa and Asia.

  2. Well said, Christie Lagally! I’ve never understood the (lack of) logic behind the claim that mistreating captive elephants will help their brethren in the wild. I believe that one poll proved that seeing elephants in the zoo had no effect on prompting patrons to contribute to elephants in the wild. The insignificant sum WPZ donates to “conservation” could be vastly increased by sending the remaining 2 elephants to a sanctuary and using that enormous saved sum to truly help stop poaching in the wild and the ivory trade.

  3. My question is where is the evidence to back up the oft repeated statement that keeping elephants in captivity helps conservation efforts? To just keep repeating something does not make it true, unless of course you live in an Orwellian world where peace is war etc. But conservation is conservation–protecting habitats, jailing poachers, banning ivory trade, working with mahouts and native people to find ways to protect elephants and not exploit them. So whenever you hear this tired old statement about conservation and zoos, ask where’s the proof? And if it’s true, why are more elephants dying in zoos than are born there? And just as importantly to me, how can years of suffering justify any goal, even if it were well founded?

    • Well said Courtney! Fundamentally, there is no evidence to back up the claim. Like much of other advertising, zoos depend on repetition and the power of suggestion to make people believe their message.

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