Former Zoo Employee Alleges Abuse in Exhibit

A former animal trainer for the San Diego Zoo recently made public allegations criticizing the facility’s elephant exhibit in an interview with King 5 News, calling the living conditions “prison-like” and  “not adequate.”

In 2009, the San Diego Zoo opened its Elephant Odyssey, and it currently hosts two temporary residents, Bamboo and Chai, who they transported from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Former employee Britta Wilson said that the transportation of the elephants was detrimental to their well-being. 

“What they’ve just had to go through was super stressful for them,” Wilson said. “I’d be surprised if something bad doesn’t happen. I hope it doesn’t.”

Furthermore, Wilson thinks that any zoo would be unsuitable for elephants to live in.

“There’s just not a lot going on,” Wilson said. “A lot of dirt, a lot of metal, a lot of enclosure, not a lot of stimulation.”

San Diego Zoo’s Manager of Public Relations Christina Simmons told the UCSD Guardian that they did not receive any formal complaints from Wilson or any, in general, regarding its elephant exhibit.

“We have a mechanism for these concerns to be submitted in a scientific fashion, anonymously, to a panel of in house experts,” Simmons said. “We can tell you that we are not aware of any allegations like this made.”

Staff from Woodland Park Zoo, who are in San Diego with Bamboo and Chai, also told King 5 News that the two “are in good health,” are “well-trained” and “are interacting with their keepers.”

Moreover, Simmons speculates that Wilson may be involved with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and is trying to make the public aware of San Diego Zoo’s attempts to bring in a group of elephants from Swaziland in 2003, a family group that was at risk due to overpopulation.

“At that time, representatives of PETA stated in federal court that they would rather see the elephants dead than in a zoo,” Simmons said. “Despite their attempts to stop our work, the elephants were rescued, and they and their offspring are currently living at the [San Diego Zoo] Safari Park.”

According to Simmons, the zoo is currently working on a number of conservation projects and is launching a rally to support Assembly Bill 96, which restricts the sale of ivory and rhino horns in California.

“San Diego Zoo Global continues to be committed to saving elephants, rhinos and other African species currently at severe risk of extinction due to poaching,” Simmons said.

Wilson also accused the zoo of participating in animal mistreatment. According to King 5 News, Wilson left in 2008 after spending 12 years with the zoo after realizing that her employers had more interest in making money than taking care of its animals. 

“I even saw a lot of abuse,” Wilson said. “I worked in a show and saw some things that were not great.”

However, Simmons assured the Guardian that the well-being of its animals is the zoo’s primary concern.

“San Diego Zoo Global prides itself on its leadership in animal care and asks all staff to alert us to any animal welfare concerns they have,” Simmons said. “We also work in collaboration with and under permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who also have mechanisms for handling and investigating complaints and have a history of working with our local humane society.”

Individuals who are interested in joining the San Diego Zoo’s campaign to protect rhino’s from extinction can visit http://endextinction.org/rally4rhinos.