There is a lot of controversy and anguish about the keeping of elephants in zoos. I agree it is a problem and not the most suitable place for them at all. I'm personally sick of seeing over the more than forty years that I have gone to zoos the cramped quarters, the poor care and the attitude that elephants are the personal job bonuses of zoo staff. I've seen too much death, illness and suffering of elephants in zoos. And I would have told anyone who asked me this opinion, even as a child.
Having said that, I also would have pointed out that because of the shortcomings and flaws of humans, there is nonetheless a valid need for elephant ambassadors. Humans do not understand, love or support that which they do not see in person, and that includes animals such as elephants. This, therefore, is how I think of elephants that reside in zoos: they are ambassadors.
In my opinion, instead of it being local zoo by zoo decisions, I believe there should be something like six or seven regions in the US that commit to each having one extremely amenable and suitable genuine elephant habitat for elephant, and other, ambassadors. These professionals responsible for their own region's elephant exhibit and habitat would decide the practical purpose of their region's elephant population: 1) a mixture of zoo elephants that need a good home, 2) a herd that is developed to be natural in size and structure as one would be in the wild, or 3) a breeding herd, whose purpose is to preserve subspecies of elephants, diversify the gene pool and provide for future region needs of individuals.
I believe that each of these regional zoos, either existing or new, would be funded to have many acres of natural habitat for the elephants and, further, that advanced knowledge of their needs in the wild be built into the design of their habitats. For example, we know that elephants need to walk many miles in order to stay healthy. Providing a wide open space is not enough, because zoo animals will naturally congregate in habitual places. Elephant habitat should be designed to have not only many acres, but much of the acreage in corridors. These corridors would be like roads and natural paths in their native habitat. They would thus be encouraged to walk their entire lengths several times a day. Think of the acreage as being laid out like a human's hiking trail, where there is something of interest around the next bend and so forth, laid out for miles within the acreage. This will encourage exercise and natural curiosity and stimulation. With smart planning some corridors may be closed off for a while while others open, making something of a seasonal migration effect.
This will also provide a more enriching educational experience for visitors. They can even be on safari, in a way, parallel to the corridors, observing the elephants at different points, and other sights that are part of the natural flora and fauna.
If we do not have live elephants where people can see them, adults and children will sink further into seeing animals as sad documentaries on TV, or cartoon characters in video games.
We need live elephant ambassadors, but they should not be the burden of any one zoo, who can only then do a painfully inadequate job. All zoos in a region should be the steering committee and contribute to the fund raising for their allocated regional elephant habitat, even if that habitat should be placed in an existing zoo (though I wonder if any zoo has the capability or space to do what I describe).
If gas prices stay low, many Americans will travel one or two states in order to come to this type of habitat. Breeding in order to combat possible extinction of elephants will also be more natural and probably more successful; it certainly will be more humane and kind.
I hope that people get some vision and spirit here and give my idea some serious consideration.