Two Elephant Moms Attack Their Newborns

Sep 19, 2013 at 5:05 PM ET

Bibi, an elephant mother of two, gave birth to a new elephant child in a zoo in northeast Germany on Wednesday. But there was no celebration in the city of Halle, where the zoo has only four cows and a male elephant. That’s because Bibi proceeded to kill her infant, first flinging it around like a frisbee and then trampling it to death.

Bibi is the second elephant mother this month to reject her newborn, the first in Rongcheng, China, last week. And while Bibi’s behavior is harrowing on its own accord, the cases together are inciting cries from animal activists and cute-baby-animal lovers around the world, many of whom are pointing fingers at zookeepers and crumbling zoo conditions, especially in China.

Elephants, like most animals that naturally travel in the wild, don’t belong in zoos. In the wild, they form complex relationships with many members of their large family packs. Since older family members teach them how to raise their youth, elephants in captivity for extended periods of time do not acquire the child-raising tactics they need to appropriately take care of their babies. “In captivity, elephants often don’t benefit from learning from other herd members like they would in the wild about social interaction and babies,” writes Nicole Meyer, director at In Defense of Animals, an animal-protection organization in San Rafael, California, in an email.

Without knowledge of how to take care of their young, elephants often reject their children as strangers shortly after birth. “Elephants have to learn how to care for their young like humans, and they have to do so out in the wild,” explains PETA spokesperson Delci Winders. “Captivity breeds a cycle of incompetent mothers.”

A short video posted to YouTube reveals Zhuangzhuang, the elephant baby in Roncheng’s nature preserve, crying. The video has more than 400,000 views:

Elephants in captivity are a sore subject for animal activists across the globe, who have long attempted to bring to light the poor conditions for elephants in zoos and in nature reserves. According to data collected by PETA, some 76 elephants have died in American zoos since 2000. Elephants in captivity have a 40 percent infant mortality rate, more than three times the mortality rate of elephants in the wild.

Elephant sickness and early elephant deaths are often the result of space constraints. While the United States’ Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires that elephants be housed in 20 feet by 20 feet indoor enclosures and 40 feet by 45 feet outdoor enclosures, PETA points out that such an outdoor enclosure is “about the size of a three-car garage.” Winders also points to concrete floors, which destroy elephants’ feet, and lack of immersion as causes for elephant suffering. “Conditions for elephants in zoos is obviously the exact opposite of what wild elephants experience,” Meyers explains.

And while elephants may live in poor conditions in zoos everywhere (except for India, where elephants are banned from circuses), some are saying this is a particularly sensitive issue in China. Users of Weibo, China’s microblogging site, are calling out Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve, the nature reserve where the incident occurred, and China’s zoos more broadly, for their poor treatment of animals:


“Post-natal depression! The mama elephant was definitely raised in captivity. Wild elephants learn skills and gain experience through observing their community. This mama elephant clearly lacks this kind of communal and species-specific knowledge! This is the sadness of Chinese style captivity!”


“… Poor little elephant … there must be some scientific reason for the big elephant to act this way …

While there are approximately 1,300 zoos and aquariums accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums around the globe, there are only two accredited zoos in China. In 2010, the Chinese government attempted to correct its zoo problem when its  Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development drafted memos outlining proper animal care in zoos. The Ministry decided to draft the memo after 11 Siberian tigers died in zoos due to poor conditions.

But not much has seemingly changed since the Ministry’s supposed take-down of “Chinese-style captivity.” In January of this year, tourists killed 10 crocodiles in a Shenzen zoo by throwing garbage down into the crocs’ cage and spitting at them. The tourists said they were trying to make sure the crocodiles were still alive. And that same month, a handful of visitors threw snowballs at lions in Hangzhou Zoo as a joke.

The prison-like nature of zoos, especially in China, can be a life-threatening problem for elephant mothers, too, especially since they spend much of their time alone. But that doesn’t mean that the zoos are willing to give up their elephant exhibits any time soon. “Elephants are some of zoos’ biggest money-makers,” Meyers explains. “Without these animals, zoos wonder whether they’ll have the same draw.”

And so while activists push for change, zookeepers are continuing to breed the elephants they still have left. “Frankly, what will be required is to stop captive breeding,” Winders says. “We’re talking about a failed project.”