In April 2005 the Detroit Zoo moved elephants Winky and Wanda to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s (PAWS) ARK 2000 Sanctuary in California.
Winky (age 53) and Wanda (age 47) lived at the Detroit Zoo for more than 10 years. As time passed, and despite our best efforts, we saw the unfortunate results of them living in an unnatural physical and social environment.
In the wild, elephants have large home ranges and may walk many miles each day. Captive environments limit the amount of space elephants have in which to travel and exercise, made even worse in cold-weather areas. Michigan’s winters are too cold (and often too slippery) for elephants to be outside all the time. At times they had to spend months inside where they were not able to get the exercise or be on the soft, natural substrate they needed to stay healthy.
Elephants are very social and need to live in large, socially complex groups that provide opportunities for the social interactions and bonds they require.
Winky and Wanda were transported in a semi-trailer that was specially designed by the PAWS sanctuary for moving elephants. It included heat and padded flooring to ensure that the elephants would travel comfortably, and also had remote cameras so that the keepers in the cab of the truck could watch the elephants as they traveled.
To reduce the stress of moving, Winky was conditioned to enter first and stand in the forward part of the trailer. Wanda was conditioned to enter the trailer after Winky and stand in the rear compartment. The elephants had many weeks of practice during which they were rewarded with their favorite treats when they entered the trailer.
On the day of the move, the rear door was gently closed behind them and their journey began. On April 5, 2005, Winky and Wanda began their journey to the Performing Animal Welfare Society’s ARK 2000 Sanctuary. The trip covered more than 2,350 miles and took approximately 70 hours.
The Asian elephants at ARK 2000 have over 30 acres (30 times the area at the Detroit Zoo) of natural habitat in which they can browse and graze, dig, swim and explore. They are able to rebuild muscles that they didn’t use living in zoos and are becoming more physically fit. Increased exercise may also slow the degenerative process of arthritis for the elephants.
Winky died at the PAWS sanctuary almost three years to the day after she arrived. She was 56 and had severe arthritis for years. Wanda enjoyed the creature comforts at PAWS for 10 years before her death in February 2015 at the age of 57 due to complications from severe arthritis. We are comforted to know that the quality of life for these elephants was as good as it possibly could have been, and we’re grateful to the staff at PAWS for the excellent care Winky and Wanda received and the environment they were offered.
The experience of these two lovely beings demonstrates the significant role zoos can play in reshaping public attitudes and values toward the humane treatment of animals. This is the end of a chapter, but not the end of the story. For more information on PAWS or to contribute to the care of other retired elephants, visit pawsweb.org.