Brown, J. L., Bansiddhi, P., Khonmee, J. et al. 2020. Commonalities in management and husbandry factors important for health and welfare of captive elephants in North America and Thailand. Animals 10(4), 737.
This review paper is a synthesis of results from multiple studies that we have conducted over the past several years using similar methodologies to identify factors related to welfare of captive populations of elephants in North American zoos and Thailand tourist camps. Using multiple conservation physiology tools, we found that, despite vastly disparate management systems, there are commonalities in how environmental and husbandry factors affect physical and physiological outcomes. Elephants appear to have better welfare, based on fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (FGM) analyses, when housed under conditions that provide a more enriched, stimulating, and less restrictive environment. We also found it is essential to balance diet and exercise for good body condition and metabolic function. In Thailand, use of tools to control elephants, such as the ankus (i.e., guide, hook) and chains, did not equate to poor welfare per se, nor did riding; however, improper uses were associated with higher wound scores and FGM concentrations. Foot health was good overall in both regions, with cracks being the most common problem, and better foot scores were found in elephants kept on softer substrates. Based on these findings, science-based guidelines are being developed in Thailand, while in North America, changes are being incorporated into elephant standards and husbandry resource guides. Management across venues can be improved by encouraging elephant exploration and exercise, establishing socially compatibility groups, ensuring proper use of tools, and providing balanced diets. We contend there is no “one-size-fits-all” management strategy to guarantee good welfare for elephants, but there are essential needs that must be met regardless of where or how they are managed. Future studies are needed to find ways to better socialize elephants; determine how temperament affects coping styles and resilience; study the importance of good handler-elephant relationships; identify more ways for elephants to engage with the environment; and assess the effect of life history on subsequent physiological and psychological well-being.