What do population-level welfare indices suggest about the well-being of zoo elephants?



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Zoo biology


To assess zoo elephants’ welfare using objective population-level indices, we sought data from zoos and other protected populations (potential "benchmarks") on variables affected by poor well-being. Such data were available on fecundity, potential fertility, stillbirths, infant mortality, adult survivorship, and stereotypic behavior. Most of these can also be affected by factors unrelated to well-being; therefore, for each, we analyzed the potential role of these other factors. Population-level comparisons generally indicate poor reproduction, and poor infant and adult survivorship in zoos compared with benchmark populations (with some differences between zoo regions and over time). Stereotypic behavior also occurs in c. 60% of zoo elephants; as the population-level welfare index least open to alternative interpretations, this represents the strongest evidence that well-being is/has been widely compromised. Poor well-being is a parsimonious explanation for the diverse range of population-level effects seen, but to test this hypothesis properly, data are now needed on, for example, potential confounds that can affect these indices (to partition out effects of factors unrelated to well-being), and causes of the observed temporal effects, and differences between species and zoo regions. Regardless of whether such additional data implicate poor well-being, our findings suggest that elephant management has generally been sub-optimal. We also discuss the selection and utilization of benchmark data, as a useful future approach for evaluating such issues.



stress, captivity, stereotypic behavior, longevity, acyclicity


G. J. Mason & J. Veasey (2010). What do population-level welfare indices suggest about the well-being of zoo elephants? Zoo Biology 29: 256-273.