Why do people love elephants so much?

Sedgwick County Zoo elephants Cinda, left, and Stephanie were a popular attraction at the Sedgwick County Zoo before Cinda died in 2014 leaving Stephanie the zoo's lone elephant. Since Cinda’s death, bringing more elephants to the zoo has been a top priority for zoo officials.
Sedgwick County Zoo elephants Cinda, left, and Stephanie were a popular attraction at the Sedgwick County Zoo before Cinda died in 2014 leaving Stephanie the zoo's lone elephant. Since Cinda’s death, bringing more elephants to the zoo has been a top priority for zoo officials. The Wichita Eagle

The public’s love affair with elephants could reach fever pitch next summer.

Zoo officials are expecting record crowds to greet six new elephants at the Sedgwick County Zoo next year. It’s part of an effort to raise a breeding herd of African elephants at the state’s largest tourist attraction.

“It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ we will have young elephant calves born here,” zoo director Mark Reed said. “That’s going to skyrocket the attendance like nothing ever has here before.”

The Sedgwick County Zoo is hoping to get new elephants this year from the southern African nation of Swaziland to be displayed at the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley exhibit, scheduled to open next May.

Reed says all new exhibits and animal additions generate excitement among residents and zoo donors.

“You get a good two-year bump and after that it settles down a little bit, but it’s always at a higher level than it was before,” Reed said.

But zoo officials say excitement about elephants is something special.

“It has consistently been one of the major animals that people expect to or would like to see, if they had their choice, at their zoo,” Reed said.

People are likely drawn to elephants because elephants develop deep social bonds and are intelligent, caring animals, says Stanford University Medical School assistant professor Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, who is a world-renowned expert on African elephant social structure and behavior.

“One of the really strong appeals is to see how much they care about family,” she said.

“The parallels to humans make them all the more compelling to spend time with.”

‘Charismatic’ critters

O’Connell-Rodwell says she initially studied insects early in her career, but then she turned her attention toward elephants.

“It was really an exciting difference to leap to a large, intelligent social animal,” O’Connell-Rodwell said.. “The research is a lot more difficult because you have to interpret a lot more about individual intention and social context.”

She says modern research shows elephant families can be very human-like: they reconcile after conflicts; they communicate, both nonverbally and through calls; and they make coalitions to solve problems.

“It’s fascinating to watch these efforts: ‘rescuing a baby stuck in the mud’ type of thing,” O’Connell-Rodwell said.

These characteristics may endear elephants to people, she said.

“I think people can understand them more easily than other animals because they see how much their values are similar,” O’Connell-Rodwell said.

Zoos often see record crowds when new elephants are born or added to their existing populations. Similar-sized zoos in nearby states have recently seen their communities respond to new pachyderms.

Two Asian elephants were born two summers ago at the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.

“It was a huge draw for us regionally within the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex,” said Alexis Wilson, the Fort Worth Zoo’s communications director.

“We saw a spike in attendance, immediately, of people coming out to see them,” Wilson said. “It was something that sustained us and we continue to have visitors.”

The Fort Worth Zoo passed 1 million visitors rapidly last year, with the baby elephants as two big reasons for the boost.

The Oklahoma City Zoo also shipped in two elephants from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle this summer.

“Everybody has a love affair with elephants and there’s such a long tradition of them in zoos,” said Candice Rennels, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s marketing director.

The Oklahoma City Zoo’s first elephant was essentially crowdfunded back in 1949, said Tara Henson, also a spokesperson for the zoo.

“School kids, particularly, raised pennies, nickels, dimes to be able to purchase an elephant,” Henson said.

Wilson said their elephants have remained an attraction in Fort Worth because baby elephants stay small in physique, relatively speaking, in their early years.

“They’re still juveniles, they’re still playing in the yard, they’re still playing when they swim,” Wilson said. “They’re fun for people to watch.”

“There’s a lot of behavior and antics,” she said.

Wilson said elephants are popular with visitors because they are vibrant and active animals.

“There are some animals that are simply a bit more charismatic,” Wilson said. “It’s either because of their size or because that they can be individually identified.”

‘Ambassadors’ for their species

But elephants are also valuable to zoos for educational purposes, in addition to entertainment.

Fort Worth’s zoo has three generations of Asian elephants. Wilson says the presence of multiple generations teaches people how social elephants can be.

“You can see the social structure and all those things that will endear the species to people,” Wilson said. “…It is through that process that people begin to care.”

Most major zoos are working to fall behind guidelines meant to boost that social structure. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that all zoos it accredits have at least three females, two males or three elephants of mixed gender by next September.

“There’s a lot that elephants learn from each other and it’s also great for them from a mentally stimulating standpoint,” Henson said.

The Sedgwick County Zoo, along with zoos in Dallas and Omaha, has entered a conservation partnership with a wildlife trust in the southern African kingdom of Swaziland to receive new elephants. If the import permits are approved by U.S. and Swazi authorities, the new elephants could arrive in Kansas by early December.

Joining current pachyderm Stephanie, they’ll be the first new elephant additions at the zoo since 1972.

Reed says the Sedgwick County Zoo has long waited to create a breeding herd to educate people on the plight of elephants in the wild.

“We have a unique opportunity as our obligation to let the people know what they can do,” Reed says.

“They really are spokescritters for their wild brethren,” Reed added.

‘Ongoing debate’

Both African and Asian elephants die in the wild daily from habitat loss and poaching. And people who love elephants are often divided over the best way to save them.

Conservationists work to protect wild populations through sanctuaries and anti-poaching efforts. Some are vehemently opposed to keeping elephants in zoos.

Joyce Poole, co-founder of the organization ElephantVoices, called the importation “an outrage” in an e-mail.

Groups have sued to block elephant transfers, both from overseas to the U.S. and between American zoos, in the past.

“There are so many different perspectives,” Stanford’s O’Connell-Rodwell said. “One is people that don’t want elephants in captivity at all because they’re a migratory species.”

“As a wildlife ecologist studying a large, social, migratory animal, it’s hard to see them in captivity,” she added.

But O’Connell-Rodwell said zoos can be an effective way of instilling conservation values at an early age.

“It’s really important to experience wild animals and many kids don’t have the luxury of going to the place where that animal exists in the wild.”

“That’s an ongoing debate: whether kids need to see that live individual animal versus a documentary,” she said.

Some zoos chose to start breeding elephant herds, which can provide entertainment and education to crowds in the U.S. and Europe.

Henson said zoos like the Oklahoma City Zoo do important conservation work, while introducing the animal to people half a world away from Africa and Asia.

“If we don’t continue to do what we can for these animals, we’re going to lose them one way or the other,” Henson said.

In addition to the plight of elephants, Reed said he hopes the exhibit can educate visitors on the potential of elephants in the wild.

“I don’t want to depress everybody that it’s hopeless,” Reed said. “Because it’s not.”

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.

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