A jumbo case of depression

00:50, Mar 06 2011
jumbowide
The elephant whisperer: Zoo staff are hoping Cherry, her horse companion, will stop Burma the elephant getting sad and lonely.

Burma the elephant may get her own herd to keep her spirits up, reports Belinda McCammon. 

AUCKLAND'S LONE and lonely ageing elephant, Burma, risks suffering depression, say experts, and a horse is being moved into her compound to keep her company.

Meanwhile opposition is growing from city councillors and animal welfare groups about the financial and ethical impact of importing elephants from Sri Lanka to create a herd to keep Burma company.

The opposition comes as an animal behaviouralist says the longer Burma, 28, is on her own – her long-time companion Kashin died in 2009 – the more likely she is to get depressed.

Jeffrey Masson says elephants can become depressed and are known to mourn if they lose a partner. "They're like humans, the longer she is alone, it is entirely possible she could become depressed."

Before the Auckland super city, a plan existed to create a herd of up to 10 elephants at the zoo, with councillor Cathy Casey the only dissenting voice. But several of the 20 new super city councillors are now echoing Casey's concerns.

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The zoo says Burma is coping well, but it has taken the unusual step of pairing her with Cherry, an 11-year-old mare, "to give Burma some animal companionship".

It says that "Burma is continuing to cope extremely well, but elephants are highly social and intelligent animals, and shouldn't be on their own for too long. As horses have a similar social structure to elephants, the zoo has been working with specialist consultants to trial this relationship and make sure that it's beneficial for both Cherry and Burma."

Masson, who wrote When Elephants Weep is questioning the move, saying it would make more sense for Burma to be paired up with a dog.

"Dogs have an extraordinary capacity to form friendships. I think they'd be better off finding a dog Burma would like.

"Horses are pretty passive, but the best thing would be to have another elephant. The trouble is, like us, you don't know who they're going to like."

Auckland councillor Cameron Brewer is against bringing in a herd. "We have a centre-left council now, and those of us on the centre-right have big reservations, not only for the welfare of the animals but the operations expenditure of keeping a herd of elephants in central Auckland.

"The best cost they've given us is an additional $1 million operational expenditure a year.

"Animal welfare advocates say it'll be a lot more than that."

Brewer says the council is financially constrained, with its chief executive trying to find $62m in savings in its budget. "It just isn't sustainable financially, especially when I don't think we've got the support of the majority of Auckland.

"I don't know if there has been one comment in the Auckland Zoo visitors book – `There aren't enough elephants'."

Urban zoos are going out of the business of keeping elephants in captivity, Brewer claimed, because of "all the problems associated, ongoing costs and health issues elephants are susceptible to, while in captivity. We're being lobbied hard on the issue around the world, this could potentially tarnish our international reputation in some very important minds".

Animal welfare group Safe's spokesman Eliot Pryor said it's still lobbying councillors.

"No conservation group in the world recommends this as a conservation measure.

"Elephants don't do well in zoos, they die earlier, they don't get enough exercise. There is one thing we all agree on, the elephant shouldn't be alone. Burma should go to another zoo, maybe in Australia."

Sunday Star Times