The Cost of Elephants

Since they are large, wide-ranging, highly social, extremely intelligent and, in captivity, potentially dangerous, elephants are among the most expensive animals to house and maintain. New elephant exhibits in North American zoos typically run into the many millions, or even tens of millions, of dollars in cost. For example, the cost of several US elephant exhibits constructed in recent years range from $12.5 - 50 million dollars each. In many cases, even after such enormous expenditures, the elephants are still relegated to small, barren elephant yards that are little different from the enclosures that preceded them.
NOTE: On October 25, 2011, City of Toronto council voted 31 - 4 in favour of retiring the three Toronto Zoo elephants to the PAWS sanctuary in California.
$42 million - the initial cost of elephants?
The Toronto Zoo is now deliberating on the fate of their three elephants. Public documents regarding the Toronto Zoo's 2011 - 2020 Captial Works Program indicate the Zoo is considering the following (pending the outcome of their most recent Elephant Program review):
Elephant - Winter Holding
This Project involves the expansion and modification of the elephant exhibit to provide additional space for the elephants and enhanced viewing experience for visitors. As standards for housing and husbandry are continuously evolving and improving, a feasibility study was undertaken in 2008 to study the future requirements of caring for these animals in the Zoo and for maintaining a herd of elephants into the future. [NOTE: The Toronto Zoo has not released the 2008 feasibility study.] The intent of this project is to provide exercise space for the elephants and enable public viewing in the winter months. The public viewing area would be themed with the current African Savanna.
The Elephant Feasibility Study has identified the following improvements to be undertaken initially to address the issue of winter holding facilities at the Zoo:
1) Enlargement of holdings by converting the inside moat into elephant space with additional doors, training barriers, rubber matting and deep sand floors.
2) Provide heated windbreak structure and lower elevation of upper paddock to increase cold weather use of the paddock and provide a year-round exercise area for the elephants.
Currently, the Zoo is undertaking a business case analysis of the Elephant Program for the consideration by the Board. In 2011, funding has been allocated to facilitate the decision process related to maintaining the herd of elephants in the future and to commence design and construction work on the enlargement of the holdings, with interior renovations as noted in item 1) above. Detailed design would be completed in 2012 and subject to the provision of external funding, construction work would commence in 2013 with completion in 2014 for the renovations necessary to make the yards more conducive to winter use and include the provision of two windbreak/shade/heat shelters, lowering the elevation at the exisitng shade structures to reduce wind, provision of radiant heat (geothermal) at the exhibit substrate and provide a training wall to allow public vewing of demonstrations.
Elephant Paddock Expansion
In accordance with the 2008 feasibility study the second phase of the improvements include the construction of a 3000 sq m dayroom for winter use, (including public viewing), a new holding building and off exhibit yard to permit breeding for the long term stability of the collection, increased paddock space, and improved visitor amenities. The study examined various options and unused space could be utilized to expand the existing elephant paddock. The existing Bush Camp area would be relocated further west where the old Africa paddocks area was located. There is the opportunity to build larger paddocks which will greatly improve the space and distance that elephants can walk, socialize and play.
What will this plan cost?
The Toronto Zoo has budgeted the following for each stage of the project:

$1.767 million - Winter Holding/Paddock Expansion Design

$0.731 million - Elephant Winter Holding upgrade
$40 million - Elephant Paddock Expansion
Total - $42.498 million 
More Costs in Future
Using the reported costs of similar exhibits in other urban North American zoos, it is likely that this amount would result in a slightly larger version of the current exhibit and a marginal improvement in elephant welfare. Should the Toronto Zoo move forward, costs may mount in future as accepted elephant housing and husbandry standards evolve, requiring periodic management changes and facility upgrades.

"Proper care of elephants is going to be expensive...The number of zoo holding facilities is expected to decline as responsible zoo administrators carefully assess their ability to provide the necessary resources and expertise for housing elephants..." (Hutchins, M, Keele, M. 2006).

As well, unless the Toronto Zoo is willing to invest a great deal more money to build a minimum 20 acre exhibit that includes at least 10 acres of year-round, climate-controlled habitat with natural light and substrate, there will be little or no relief from the various ailments the Toronto Zoo elephants are now experiencing, and that are ubiquitous in elephants in cold climate facilities.

Furthermore, the Toronto Zoo currently has a reported $90 million backlog in repairs and upgrades that must be done just to keep the facility in good repair. It is irresponsible for the zoo to be embarking on new multimillion dollar projects prior to having done the needed maintenance at the zoo.

In addition to the capital cost, there is an ongoing need for staff, care of the animals and the maintenance of the infrastructure, not to mention the replacement of the elephants as they die off.

It is also important to understand that zoos in the US are currently embarking on a study of the welfare concerns with keeping elephants in North America, so there is every reason to believe that once the study is done, the standards will be upgraded in an attempt to address many of the welfare problems and additional capital funding will be needed again in a few years to bring the Toronto facility up to the new standards.
Are Elephants a Conservation Investment?

If zoos, like the Toronto Zoo, are sincerely interested in contributing to elephant conservation, then consideration must be given to the fact that the per capita costs for effective in-situ conservation are consistently lower in large-bodied animals (including elephants) than the costs associated with maintenance in captivity.

The costs of captive elephant breeding programs are estimated to be ten times higher than in-situ programs. Zoos can maximize their contribution to elephant conservation by investing where possible in well-managed, field-based initiatives, rather than establishing captive breeding programs. Also, in-situ conservation projects bring the added benefit over captive programs of conserving entire ecosystems and processes that define them.
When this fact is considered in conjunction with the knowledge that the AZA Elephant Taxon Advisory Group, the African Elephant Species Survival Plan and every credible zoo agency have stated - unequivocally - that elephants are not being bred for return to the wild, there is no conservation reason to spend additional millions of dollars to keep elephants at the Toronto Zoo.

While it may not be realistic to believe that the full amount of funding available to build zoo exhibits may be available for field-conservation, it is important to consider that in-situ conservation programs are operated at a fraction of the cost, so even a limited amount of funding can have a greater impact to elephant conservation. A small investment in field conservation initiatives could yield a far greater conservation return on investment than spending millions to keep elephants at the Toronto Zoo.
The Elephant Learning Center -
A Cost Effective Alternative

In 2010, Zoocheck Canada proposed that the Toronto Zoo consider constructing an interactive, science-based Elephant Learning Centre (ELC), that would not include live elephants, except as viewed through electronic media. We estimate that an ELC would require approximately 1/3 the amount of captial funding than the existing exhibit refurbishment plan, would cost less to maintain and would be a stand-alone attraction that would bring new visitors and increased revenue to the zoo.

To view the Elephant Learning Centre proposal, click here.

The ELC is only one example of an exhibit that could be built in Toronto. The zoo's proposed budget for design of $1.767 million could certainly go a long way to designing an engaging, innovative, interactive display that does not involve keeping live elephants. An alternative elephant display of this type at the Toronto Zoo could help raise funds for elephant conservation projects in-situ, while enhancing the zoo's own revenues through an add-on admission charge.