Suzi, a much-loved elephant at the Santa Barbara Zoo, was recently euthanized at only 47 years old, due to degenerative joint disease. She left behind many human friends. As important, she left behind her life-long elephant companion, Little Mac, with whom she spent nearly five decades.
Suzi’s death provides a unique opportunity for the Santa Barbara Zoo to give Little Mac’s fate fresh thought. Should she stay in Santa Barbara? Should she move to another zoo and continue being on display? Or should she be allowed to retire to a sanctuary after nearly 50 years of close confinement?
The first option is for Little Mac to stay in Santa Barbara. The zoo would face big changes and even bigger investments it cannot postpone or avoid. Little Mac now lives alone. From cradle to grave, female elephants have a tight network of close connections among multiple generations. Females never leave their families; their families never leave them. A female elephant alone in a zoo is wholly unnatural and in distress.
Little Mac’s small and unchanging quarter-of-an-acre enclosure is also a problem for this highly intelligent and far-ranging animal. Without access to a variety of natural substrates and space allowing vigorous exercise, Little Mac runs the risk of developing the same painful degenerative joint disease that caused Suzi’s death — if she doesn’t already suffer from it.
The reality is that neither additional elephants nor an expensive large and stimulating space is within easy reach of the Santa Barbara Zoo.
The second option is to move Little Mac to another zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This option is problematic in that there are no AZA zoos housing Asian elephants that offer adequate space necessary to avoid causing or worsening painful degenerative joint and foot disease — the leading cause of death in elephants in zoos.
The Los Angeles Zoo, which has the largest Asian elephant exhibit in the U.S., already holds four elephants on about three acres, which is divided into four pens. The San Diego Zoo already holds four Asian elephants on about two acres.
The third option is allowing Little Mac to end her nearly 50 years on display and spend the remaining years of her life at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (TES). It is a unique AZA-certified facility that specializes in caring for aging elephants retired from zoos and circuses. She would enjoy her golden years with other Asian elephants on 2,200 acres.
At TES, elephants have autonomy to choose what they want to do. They can spend their time foraging and moving throughout the sanctuary’s woods and meadows; they can ford streams, swim in a 25-acre lake, climb rolling hills and slopes, and relax in mud and dust wallows. They can nap in knee-high grass in the company of wild turkeys and deer.
Little Mac’s future lies in the hands of the Santa Barbara community. She has done everything asked of her. Hasn’t she earned spending the rest of her life in an environment that is as close to the wild as possible?
If you believe that Little Mac deserves a peaceable and dignified retirement, we urge you to contact Rich Block, the director of the Santa Barbara Zoo, and politely express your support for Little Mac’s move to The Elephant Sanctuary.
The author is co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.