On the morning of November 17, 2011, Umoya, a 21 year old African Elephant, who was a part of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was found lying on the ground by zoo caretakers. She had severe injuries and could not get up. Umoya passed away before veterinary assistance could be provided. Although the cause of death has not been determined and autopsy results could take weeks to come back, zoo officials believe the wounds were inflicted by an “aggressive interaction” with another elephant.
Umoya was born in the Kruger National Park and was one of the seven original elephants rescued from Swaziland in 2003. In 2007, Umoya gave birth to a female calf, Phakamile, and in 2010, gave birth to a male calf, Emanti, which brought the San Diego herd now up to 18 elephants in total. On the day Umoya died, San Diego zoo caretakers gave the herd time to mourn her death, something elephants, both in the wild and in captivity, are known to do. Umoya stood out in the San Diego herd as being one of the most dominant females and as being the only elephant in the exhibit who walked backwards.
Since Umoya’s death, several animal rights groups have called for an investigation into the incident stating that it raises questions about the welfare and safety of elephants and other large mammals in zoos. The current call to action is spearheaded by In Defense of Animals (IDA). IDA has called on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Umoya’s death. Specifically in their complaint, IDA states that an adult male elephant, Mabhulane, who was known to be aggressive, was confined with the female elephants and their young. IDA Campaign Director Catherine Doyle explained why this is significant by stating, “Zoos typically keep males and females separated because the powerful males can injure the females. In the wild, adult males do not live with the matriarchal family groups, and females are not known to kill one another.” (Zoo officials however have not released a statement yet indicating which elephant may have caused Umoya’s injuries.) Doyle further went on to explain, “This elephant’s shocking death is another tragic example of how elephants suffer in inadequate and artificial zoo exhibits. There is nothing natural about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s elephant exhibit or keeping 18 elephants crammed into a space of less than six acres when their natural home ranges can measure hundreds of square miles.” The IDA complaint further wants the USDA to investigate why no staff or security was aware of Umoya’s injuries until the trainers arrived in the morning.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has also joined in the chorus by releasing a written statement calling for the San Diego Zoo to close the elephant exhibit. “PETA is concerned that warning signs of internal conflict within the zoo’s artificial herd were ignored by zoo staff and that Umoya’s death, which has left her two babies orphaned, may have been preventable.”
While animal rights groups such as IDA and PETA claim that elephants for their own safety and welfare should not be kept in zoos, there is another side to the debate. Many people maintain that elephant exhibits are an invaluable and integral part of zoo culture. One such supporter of this proposition is Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge. LaBonge states that elephants “remain important educational institutions in the effort to protect and conserve the elephant species. They allow people like you and me to experience these magnificent mammals.”
Ultimately, whether an investigation is launched is up to the USDA.