OPINION: Bong Su is dead, broken by cramped and impoverished zoo conditions

The zoo treated the symptoms of Bong Su's problems, but not the causes.

OPINION: By PETER STROUD - FORMER SENIOR CURATOR OF MELBOURNE ZOO AND A DIRECTOR OF WERRIBEE ZOO on OCT 17, 2017 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.
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Bong Su, Melbourne Zoo's beloved bull elephant, is dead. His death is a tragedy: zoo veterinarians euthanised him after an assessment that the pain he felt from "arthritis" could not be relieved. While this may be the case, Bong Su's pain was not natural. It was due to the conditions in which he was kept for many years at Melbourne Zoo. In reality, Bong Su should have been in his prime.

Captured from the wild in Malaysia, Bong Su and a female elephant, Mek Kapah, were shipped to Melbourne in 1977-78. They were young calves, no more than five years old.

For many years, Bong Su and Mek Kapah lived alone in what the zoo now calls its "heritage elephant exhibit", an old-fashioned, moated enclosure. During their time in the exhibit, both elephants developed severe behavioural problems involving repetitive "stereotypic" actions that are now understood to help relieve chronic stress. Mek Kapah swayed in one spot for years, actually wearing away the concrete under her front feet. Bong Su walked in small circles for hours at a time, putting particular strain on his front feet; video evidence showed Bong Su walked up to 15 kilometres a night in a tight circle, in his own waste, inside his barn. The constant torsion on his front feet resulted in chronic infections.

Confined in separate small barn-stalls for 16 hours out of 24 for many years, both elephants led impoverished lives. In the late 1990s, new expertise was brought in and a radical new approach was taken to relieve the stereotypic behaviour. The elephants were no longer confined on concrete floors at night. A weight-loss program was introduced for Mek Kapah. Exercise and training regimes were implemented for both elephants with the aim of stimulating and engaging them and building their confidence. In 2003 the elephants were moved to more spacious facilities. They evidently were invigorated by their new surroundings. Still, the situation was far from ideal.

In the wild elephants move across large areas and lead complex social lives. They acquire deep knowledge of the landscapes in which they live, from direct experience and by learning from older and wiser relatives. This life experience was denied to Bong Su and Mek Kapah and is denied to all zoo elephants. There is scientific evidence that the result is life-long serious mental and physical health issues.

After 25 years in a too-small enclosure, Bong Su's life expectancy was severely compromised. Foot and joint problems are regarded as the most important health issue for captive elephants, and probably the leading reason for euthanasia.

As a senior curator at Melbourne Zoo, I knew Bong Su for five years from 1998 to 2003. I regarded him as very calm and co-operative for a bull elephant. He responded to his frequent medical treatment with stoicism even when he was in pain. His keepers and veterinarians were devoted but there were always limits to what could be done for him within the confines of a small enclosure. No one person had the power to make the major changes that might have helped Bong Su.

The zoo treated the symptoms of Bong Su's problems, but not the causes.

I last saw Bong Su at the zoo on the Saturday before he died. He looked composed and in otherwise good body condition, but was holding up one foot and placing the tip of his trunk in his mouth, suggesting discomfort. While walking around my former workplace, it was obvious to me that Melbourne Zoo's elephants continue to live in an environment that is cramped, sterile and inadequate compared to any conditions the animals might have enjoyed in the wild. Mek Kapah still sways from side to side.

I have come to the realisation that zoos are no place for elephants. It is long overdue for Australian zoos to courageously confront the substandard conditions their elephants endure and look for better ways to provide for them.

Bong Su is dead. Not because he reached old age, but because he was broken by cramped and impoverished zoo conditions and a terrible inability, through much of his life, to meet his true needs.

Peter Stroud is an independent zoological consultant. He was formerly a senior curator of Melbourne Zoo and a director of the Werribee Zoo. He is a member of the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group.

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