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KC Zoo named amongst worst for elephants by animal legal rights team

Tamani (left), a 10 year-old bull elephant, touched Megan, a 38 year-old female, as they enjoyed the outdoors on his first full day out on exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo on Friday, March 4, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Tamani (still left), a 10 yr-old bull elephant, touched Megan, a 38 yr-previous feminine, as they savored the outdoors on his first whole working day out on exhibit at the Kansas Town Zoo on Friday, March 4, 2016 in Kansas Town, Missouri.

Shane Keyser

Kansas City has one of the worst zoos for elephants in the country, an animal rights group claimed this week.

But the zoo’s CEO called that assertion false, and disagreed with all accusations leveled against them.

In Defense of Animals, an international animal protection organization based out of California, published its latest “worst zoos for elephants” list Tuesday, ranking the Kansas City Zoo at No. 2.

This is the first time the Kansas City Zoo has made an appearance on this list, which this year focused on every zoo in North America that recently expanded its elephant enclosure, said Courtney Scott, an elephant consultant with In Defense of Animals, which created the ranking.

In Defense of Animals, which promotes the goal of ending all animal suffering, advocates for the closure of all elephant exhibits, which they say will never provide sufficient space or stimulation for the giant creatures. In Kansas City, they take issue not only with the size of the elephant habitat, but also the zoo’s involvement in breeding.

The CEO of the Kansas City Zoo argues that the elephants there have it good, and that they’re doing good too, by funding opportunities for education and conservation through the zoo.

Is the habitat big enough?

In 2020, the KC Zoo reopened its elephant exhibit after investing $10 million into an expansion of the habitat, adding sand, a better pool with filtration, and more shady areas for its seven elephants.

“We felt that we already had an existing exhibit that met all the standards, but we went above and beyond even further to make sure that we were allowing for a space that the animals could choose what they wanted to do,” said Sean Putney, CEO of the zoo.

In Defense of Animals noted the zoo’s investment into the elephant habitat, but said the increased investment in the “puny 3 acres” still wasn’t enough.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, of which the Kansas City Zoo is a member, requires that each elephant have at least 5,400 square feet per elephant to roam. Kansas City’s three acres goes beyond that.

Even though the zoo meets the AZA standards for elephant exhibits, Scott said those standards are “inadequate” and don’t provide nearly enough space for the elephants to thrive.


As Scott worked on the list, a supporter of In Defense of Animals sent her a video of an elephant at the Kansas City Zoo swaying.

Scott said this was a clear sign of “zoochosis,” which she described as a repetitive behavior that is a marker of stress and brain damage caused by captivity.

“Those elephants have very little to do, nowhere to go. Their minds and bodies are not being utilized the way that they’ve been programmed to for thousands of years,” Scott said. “In every way possible, it’s deprivation at every level.”

Putney said he rarely sees the swaying that Scott pointed to when he visits the elephant exhibit.

“I believe that they’re very content, and I believe we do a great job at making sure that their lives are content,” he said.

A call to end breeding, close exhibits

The year before the renovated elephant exhibit reopened, the Kansas City Zoo announced an “African Elephant Reproductive Conservation Initiative.” It’s described as a national project to study the reproductive health of older African elephants in zoos “with a long-term goal of helping to make the elephant population in AZA-accredited facilities more sustainable,” according to the zoo’s website.

In Defense of Animals called this program “cruel and misguided,” fearing that it will mean breeding African elephants past their typical breeding age.

“Kansas City Zoo knows the potential risks to the elephants’ health and well-being. But in its desperation to replenish its exhibit, Kansas City is willing to gamble on elephant lives,” In Defense of Animals said.

Putney said Tuesday that the Kansas City Zoo does not intend to breed older elephants through the initiative.

This includes 54-year-old Lady, the oldest elephant in an American zoo. Though the initiative was paused at the start of the pandemic, Putney said the zoo still hopes to continue with the plan in order to study the viability of elephants across the country.

In the meantime, he said, the zoo has been collecting specimen from one of its younger male elephants which they’ve sent to other zoos as part of reproductive efforts.

Scott is an advocate for the end to breeding all elephants at zoos, and said their group stands behind their mission statement which asserts there are no good zoos for elephants.

She, and In Defense of Animals, have called repeatedly on all zoos to close their elephant exhibits, end all breeding practices and relocate the remaining elephants to sanctuaries. So far, 33 zoos have ended their elephant captivity, according to the group.

“I’m in total disagreement with that,” Putney said, arguing that the zoo provides a good animal habitat, educational opportunities for guests and conservation money for elephants in the wild.

“And all of that in combination, I hope that will protect those animals and will keep elephants around for the long-term, and I don’t think that not having elephants in zoos will better the lives of the elephants that are out in the wild.”

This story was originally released January 25, 2023, 3:01 PM.

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Anna Spoerre handles breaking news for the Kansas City Star. Ahead of joining The Star, she coated criminal offense and courts for the Des Moines Register. Spoerre is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, exactly where she analyzed journalism.