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Savannah's Story

From Free To Be Elephants
January 2024

Savannah is a 71-year-old Asian elephant currently confined at the El Paso Zoo. She has spent nearly seven decades held captive in tiny, unnatural enclosures, deprived of everything she would have experienced had she been allowed to live freely with her familial herd in India. Savannah is held alone with no elephant companions, where she suffers from her facility’s lack of sufficient space and from being unable to engage in her natural behaviors. 

Elephant Savannah

Savannah has spent almost 98 percent of her 71 years of life held captive in tiny, unnatural enclosures, deprived of everything she would have experienced had she been allowed to live freely with her familial herd in India. Currently held alone in a tiny, barren exhibit at the El Paso Zoo in Texas, Savannah is the oldest Asian elephant in the United States and the longest held captive. There are surprisingly little available records of Savannah’s life story.

Born in India around 1952, Savannah was captured and imported to the United States in 1954. For 27 years, from 1954 until 1981, she was held captive at the Dallas Zoo. Grainy footage of the elephants there, possibly of Savannah, shows an exhibit that looks remarkably similar to the elephant exhibits that exist in present day AZA-accredited zoos. In 1981, Savannah was moved to the Baton Rouge Zoo where she was confined until her transfer to the El Paso Zoo.

Savannah has been held captive for almost 27 years at the El Paso Zoo, which has been named one of the worst zoos for elephants in North America multiple times. An elephant keeper was recorded beating an elephant named Sissy in 1999, resulting in Sissy’s transfer to an elephant sanctuary. This happened while Savannah was at the zoo. In 2005, advocates and elephant experts around the world strongly urged the zoo to transfer Savannah and the zoo’s other elephant, Juno, to an elephant sanctuary, citing the zoo’s inability to meet the elephants’ complex physical and psychological needs (Juno was euthanized in 2021 after battling cancer). The El Paso City Council, which has oversight of the municipally owned and operated zoo, declined to relocate the elephants and only committed to providing them with a nominal amount of additional space.

At the El Paso Zoo, Savannah has access to less than an acre of land, including a barn–unlike an elephant sanctuary where elephants have significantly more space and social opportunities. Savannah is being treated for early-stage cancer, suffers from arthritis, and has been observed engaging in stereotypies– behavior indicative of brain dysregulation and stress. The zoo subjects her to gimmicky acts, such as having her “choose” which football team will win the superbowl (an activity her keepers claim is physical and mental enrichment for her). In a telling example of the zoo’s lack of seriousness with meeting Savannah’s complex needs, the El Paso Zoo Director, Joe Montisano, claims Savannah is happy because she likes to watch television.

The AZA justifies holding elephants like Savannah captive by contending that captivity aids in the conservation of their species. However, allowing wild elephants to remain free and have their own offspring, thereby increasing the wild population, would actually serve conservation efforts. The dubious rationale of conservation cannot justify the lifetime of subjugation, deprivation, and prolonged suffering that Savannah has endured.

Those continuing to hold Savannah captive still have the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in her life. The El Paso Zoo should transfer Savannah to an accredited elephant sanctuary if she is healthy enough for the move. If that is not possible, she should be allowed to live the rest of her life without being placed on display, with as much peace and dignity as possible. Confining an elephant for over seven decades is an unjustifiable wrong and it is time for the AZA’s elephant program to end.

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