‘Nothing to do, nowhere to go’: What happens when elephants live alone

Research shows that solitary confinement is damaging to the human brain. The same is likely true for elephants.

At Natural Bridge Zoo, in Virginia, the nearly 40-year-old African elephant Asha, pictured here with her handler, has been held alone for most of her life. Last year, a veterinarian described her as “unstimulated” and “detached” and noted that she swayed back and forth—a sign of frustration in captive elephants. The zoo’s owner says Asha “has a tremendously good life."
Photograph by Erica Yoon, The Roanoke Times

On a raw December day, as Christmas music blares over loudspeakers, an African elephant named Asha walks in tight circles in an enclosure at Natural Bridge Zoo, a roadside attraction in Virginia. Her living quarters consist of a barn and three outdoor yards—a fenced patch of grass about 90 by 40 feet, a dirt patch with a few logs scattered about, and a yard where she gives rides to children for $15 and her massive feet have worn a ring into the grass. Her space is barren—no shrubs, trees, or watering holes.

Elephants, like humans, are social animals. In the wild, females typically live in herds of eight or more, yet Asha, who’s nearly 40 years old, has been confined mostly alone for more than 30 years.

Three decades ago and thousands of miles away, an inmate entered solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, in Crescent City, California. He had no documented psychiatric problems when they locked him in the 80-square-foot room, barren except for a toilet, a sink, and a bed.

The prisoner spent more than 22 hours a day for several months in the white, concrete cell, lit by the glow of an overhead fluorescent light. Within weeks, a prison psychiatrist noted that he couldn’t sleep. He was haunted by a desire to kill someone—or himself. During one hallucinatory episode, he repeatedly kicked the cell door. He said “entities” were visiting him. “I can see them through the walls, black evil,” he said. “I fear I’m going to die.”

In 1993, inmates at Pelican Bay filed a class action lawsuit against the prison over what they alleged were inhumane conditions. Federal judge Thelton Henderson agreed. He ruled that prison officials had violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, in part because of the suffering inflicted by solitary confinement. Inmates “can go weeks, months or potentially years with little or no opportunity for normal social contact with other people,” Henderson wrote. During a tour of the prison, he noted that “some inmates spend time simply pacing around the edges of the pen; the image created is hauntingly similar to that of caged felines pacing in a zoo.”

Decades of research indicates that anyone who spends more than 10 days in involuntary solitude suffers at least some emotional, cognitive, social, and physical health effects, ranging from trouble sleeping to panic attacks and hallucinations. Neuroscientist Bob Jacobs of Colorado College, who has studied both human and animal brains, says other social mammals may react similarly. “In general, all mammals follow the same basic blueprints in terms of brain structure and function,” he says.

In the United States, at least nine elephants now live alone—in unaccredited roadside businesses such as Natural Bridge Zoo and in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In some facilities with lone elephants, their handlers believe they’re better off alone, but in others, the elephants show signs of stress and depression.

“From everything we know about the brain, there’s no reason to think that an elephant brain would react any differently to solitary confinement than a human brain,” Jacobs says. For better or for worse, he says, brains of all types are designed for specific environments, and they’re sensitive to changes in those environments.

Natural Bridge Zoo owner Karl Mogensen says Asha has a good life at the zoo. “She was a product of a culling operation in ’85,” he says. “She’s what we call a family elephant—totally bonded to us and the people [here], has a tremendously good life … We’re very comfortable with the way we take care of her.” She has constant attention and “beautiful facilities,” he adds. “Yes, she is solitary, but she’s a family pet.”

On its Facebook page, the zoo has positioned itself in opposition to “radical” animal groups who would take Asha away. “In a perfect world, she would be in Africa, FREE,” the zoo wrote in June 2018. “But because of the ivory trade, poaching, and deforestation, these incredible animals face certain destruction.” (African elephants are endangered, mainly because of poaching.)

In a recent review of scientific literature, Jacobs hypothesizes how sparse, captive environments affect large-brained mammals such as elephants. Of course, elephants are difficult to study: “You don't want to have a laboratory animal that's capable of killing you,” he says. Scientists can’t create controlled experiments for such large animals in a laboratory, and they can’t put them in an MRI scanner and take a look inside their massive skulls. As a result, Jacobs says his research is a matter of extrapolating based on the conditions that elephants live in and how other animals’ brains respond to stress and different environments.

Few laws or regulations prevent elephants from isolation. The AZA requires that zoos with female elephants must “have a minimum of three females (or the space to have three females)”—meaning that a zoo can maintain its accredited status even if it has one elephant, as long as the facility has enough space for three elephants. Elephants ideally would be grouped together, AZA president Dan Ashe told National Geographic last year, but he added, “sometimes animals don’t want to be in a group.” The Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has multiple regulations addressing the social needs of animals, including primates, dogs, and marine mammals—but none for elephants.

Captive elephant numbers have been dwindling in the U.S., and as more elephants in zoos are dying than being born, the number of solitary elephants will increase. More than 30 North American zoos have phased out their elephant exhibits since the 1990s for various reasons, including the cost and difficulty of caring for elephants.

“You're going to have facilities that are down to one elephant,” says Delcianna Winders, Animal Law Program director at Vermont Law School. Will they decide to send them to sanctuaries where they’ll be with other elephants? “Or are they going to assert that they're too old to move and just keep them alone?”

The AZA, which oversees conservation breeding programs for African and Asian elephants, acknowledges that zoo populations can’t be sustained without an influx of new animals from wild populations—a contentious position itself as it often involves the breakup of elephant families.

An elephant never forgets

In the wild, much of elephants’ brain stimulation comes from other elephants, says Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior specialist and National Geographic Explorer. They’re always moving—listening, sniffing, playing—whereas solitary captive elephants are “not very animated”—they have no other elephants to interact with and nowhere to explore, she says. (Read about Poole’s African Elephant Ethogram, the most comprehensive audiovisual library ever made of African savanna elephant behavior.)

Male elephants spend 10 to 14 years with their mothers before going off to form their own bonded “bachelor groups.” Females stay with their mothers all their lives, in multigenerational social groups as large as 50.

“Growing up in a social context, or in a family, is critical to their development,” Poole says, and social interactions remain central to their well-being throughout their lives.


That may be related to certain features of elephants’ brains. Their cells, or neurons, have particularly long, branching dendrites, which may suggest that elephants process information more deeply and contemplatively than other mammals. They have as many neurons in their cerebral cortex as humans, and they have relatively larger pyramidal neurons, a type of cortical neuron central to cognitive processes, according to Lucy Bates, an elephant cognition scientist. (To learn more about how elephants communicate, check out our elephant call guide.)

While it’s not known for sure, these features may also help explain why elephants have strong memories, particularly in a social context. Some evidence suggests that after up to 27 years of separation, captive elephants can still recognize the smell of their mother’s urine. In the wild, elephants can distinguish between the calls of family members and strangers; they can recognize the voices of at least a hundred other elephants; and they can record the locations of as many as 17 different family members. By contrast, humans are thought to be able to hold about seven items in their short-term memory at once.

The fact that elephant “brains are so adapted to this kind of social processing [of] information just demonstrates how important family and social interaction … is to them,” Bates says.

Changes in the brain

At Natural Bridge Zoo, Asha spends hours circling her yard, grazing quietly.   

Veterinarian Philip Ensley, who worked with elephants at San Diego Zoo for nearly 30 years, visited the zoo in September to observe her and assess her health for the nonprofit Free All Captive Elephants, one of many animal advocacy groups that has criticized Asha’s conditions. In a private report shared with National Geographic, he noted that Asha swayed back and forth, shifted her weight off certain limbs (potentially indicating arthritis or joint disease, which are common in captive elephants), and appeared “unstimulated” and “detached.”

“It is inappropriate in the field of care and management of captive elephants to keep a female alone,” he concluded in the report. The lack of a companion “is causing Asha to suffer.”  

The stresses of captivity can change the brain, Jacobs says. In captive wild animals, one effect can be stereotypies—repetitive, seemingly pointless behaviors, such as a monkey pulling its hair out. They’re most often displayed by bored, social animals in captivity and are rarely seen in the wild. For a solitary captive elephant, the loss of control over its environment and the lack of stimulation caused by long-term isolation can trigger pacing, head bobbing, rocking, or swaying, among other repetitive behaviors.

In a 2017 report on solitary captive elephants in 14 nationally accredited zoos in Japan, it was noted that nearly all displayed stereotypic behaviors.

“If there’s a behavioral issue or a psychological issue, there’s a neural issue underlying it,” Jacobs says. Repetitive behaviors, according to studies in humans and other animals, have been associated with disruption in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that helps control voluntary movements.

In swaying or pacing elephants, their basal ganglia likely are so disrupted that they can’t stop these repetitive actions, Jacobs says. (This is also true for humans who have conditions involving basal ganglia damage, such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, he says, which can cause involuntary movements and debilitating tremors.)

For wild animals in captivity, that kind of brain damage is believed to be associated with a lack of stimulation. “The brain thrives on stimulation,” Jacobs says. Without it, dendrites shrink from lack of use, and capillaries decrease in diameter, reducing blood flow to the brain. A 2018 study on the effects of prolonged isolation on the brains of mice found a 20-percent reduction in their neurons. “‘Use it or lose it’—it applies to muscles, but it also applies to the brain,” he says.

Stress, whether it’s caused by isolation or something else, also activates the body’s fight-or-flight stress response, which releases cortisol into the bloodstream, giving the body a boost of energy to respond to the perceived threat. When the fight-or-flight response is stimulated continuously, it eventually damages nerve cells in the hippocampus, which is central to learning and memory. In humans, a compromised hippocampus is often associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and other stress-related illnesses.

‘Why is this even still allowed?’

An elephant alone in captivity has “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see, no one to communicate with,” Poole says.

“Why is this even still allowed for these animals that we know so much about? Why aren't our laws doing something about it?” says Vermont Law School’s Delcianna Winders.

When pushed to surrender solitary elephants to sanctuaries, zoos may argue that the animal is better off staying put. She’s too old, too sick, or doesn’t like the company of other elephants, they say. That’s the argument Bronx Zoo makes for Happy, a 51-year-old Asian elephant who’s at the center of a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) arguing that she’s entitled to legal rights, including freedom from imprisonment.

Bronx Zoo has a second elephant, named Patty, who also is kept alone. Happy and Patty don’t get along, according to zoo officials, though they can see each other through the fence separating their enclosures and occasionally touch each other. Director James Breheny says Happy “is more comfortable with her keepers and with safe barriers between her and other elephants” and that those who criticize her situation “know nothing of our individual animal, her personality, preferences, or tendencies.”

The NhRP contends that Happy would enjoy the company of other elephants, having lived with a companion named Grumpy for 25 years until that elephant’s death in 2002. New York’s highest court has agreed to hear Happy’s case, but a date hasn’t been set.

When an elephant is too sick or old to be moved, or has a disease that can be passed to other animals, it may have to be held alone, says Joshua Plotnik, president and executive director of Think Elephants International, a conservation group that studies elephant behavior. In these cases, consideration should be given to the individuality of the animal to ensure a life that’s as full as possible.

“Just like if you if you have pets, each dog or cat has a different personality—it is the same for elephants,” Plotnik says. For elephants that show they need a challenge, keepers might invent more complex foraging activities; for eager-to-please animals, they might focus more on positive reinforcement. 

Transferring elephants can be risky, and a number have died during or shortly after being moved, though the causes of their deaths have been hotly debated.

But when elephants settle in at sanctuaries, many formerly solitary, submissive, or shy animals open up—increasing their interactions with others and reducing their stereotypies. Within six months of her transfer to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, an elephant named Sissy—who had killed one of her handlers at Frank Buck Zoo, in Gainesville, Texas, and was characterized as “antisocial”—formed close friendships with other elephants; more than 20 years later, she’s thriving peaceably.

After 10 years alone in Alaska Zoo, an African elephant named Maggie became one of the most social members of the herd at the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary, in California, according to Catherine Doyle, the director of science, research, and advocacy. Zoo officials had predicted that because she was sometimes aggressive toward her former companion, who died in 1997, she might not get along with other elephants. (PAWS now has one elephant in isolation because her Asian elephant companions died. As a sanctuary, PAWS does not breed or buy elephants.)

What can be done?

In some cases, the Endangered Species Act has been used to push zoos into providing companions for solitary animals. The law prohibits harming endangered species, which includes “significantly impairing essential behavior patterns.” For elephants, socializing with other elephants is part of their nature, Winders says, so housing an elephant alone may violate the law.

There’s precedent with other social animals. In 2019, for example, a Maryland court ruled that Tri-State Zoological Park violated the Endangered Species Act by keeping lions and lemurs on their own. While a case involving a solitary elephant has yet to be tried, a lawsuit in 2015 came close: The Animal Legal Defense Fund sued San Antonio Zoo under the Endangered Species Act for keeping its Asian elephant, Lucky, alone for more than two years after her companion died. But after the lawsuit was filed, the zoo introduced two additional elephants as companions, and the fund moved to dismiss its lawsuit.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly nearly put an end to Natural Bridge Zoo’s elephant rides when it banned “direct contact with dangerous captive animals.” The bill originally referred to elephants, as well as tigers, lions, bears, and others, but after campaigning by zoo owner Mogensen, supported by Delegates Daniel Helmer and Tony Wilt, elephants were removed from the bill before the Assembly passed it.

The future is uncertain for captive elephants in the U.S., especially as the debate intensifies over whether certain highly intelligent, social species should be in kept captivity at all. “The more evidence you look at … the more you have to come to the conclusion that it is not ethically justifiable to keep these animals in captivity,” says neuroscientist Bob Jacobs, reflecting on his latest research. Even large zoos are “way too small” for such large animals, he says, but solitary elephants held in small enclosures—“that’s probably about as bad as it could get.”  

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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