SEATTLE - On a sunny summer day, Chai the elephant grazes on grass and branches in the one-acre elephant exhibit at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Children lean over the metal barriers, trying to reach the charismatic creature.
In the elephant barn, Watoto stretches her trunk to reach a net filled with vegetation and munches on her lunch before wandering back to the outdoor exhibit. Teenagers watch her, mimicking the movements of her trunk.
Zoos showcase such scenes as evidence of the healthy and happy experience of their elephants. Animal rights groups dismiss such enclosures as woefully small and harmful to the health of creatures they say are meant to roam vast wildernesses.
Across the country, some zoos are bowing to pressure from animal rights groups and shipping their elephants to sanctuaries, while others build larger enclosures to ward off criticism about the animals' living conditions.
Since 2000 some zoos, including those in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco, have given up elephants entirely, conceding that the animals need too much space and money to maintain. Other zoos are following suit, with no plans to replace aging animals after they die.
In Alaska, publicity about Maggie, the lone elephant at Anchorage's zoo, prompted the board to agree earlier this year to send her south. Seven zoos in warmer climates are vying for the 25-year-old elephant.
Officials at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., took a different approach. They are planning a new elephant space for 2009 that will give Stephanie and Cynda, their female African elephants, and up to five new elephants 3.6 acres to roam. At California's Oakland Zoo, four African elephants wander more than five acres of habitat, the result of a $100,000 expansion. And the Los Angeles Zoo poured $39 million into a new six-acre habitat.
Such changes do not satisfy some animal rights activists, who contend elephants belong in the wild or in much bigger sanctuaries.
"The zoos are knowingly acting irresponsibly in keeping the elephants on surfaces and spaces totally inadequate for them because they don't want to lose their biggest attractions," said veterinarian Elliot M. Katz, president of In Defense of Animals.
Zookeepers see the criticism as a thinly veiled campaign to eventually close zoos entirely by attacking their most popular and iconic attractions.
"The people who really care about animals are in zoos," said Bruce Bohmke, deputy director of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. "And we are constantly challenged to find a way to make zoos better."
Most zoo directors maintain it is not the size of the exhibit but the quality of care and the use of space that matters. Some zoo officials use Woodland Park Zoo as a positive example because they say its layout maximizes an acre of land for three elephants.
"We still get visitors who can't find the elephants," Bohmke said. "It's a very long acre."
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires at least 400 square feet of indoor space and 1,800 square feet, about the size of six parking spaces, to house an elephant.
"We felt and we continue to feel that space is very arbitrary," said Mike Keele, deputy director of the Oregon Zoo and chairman of the association's elephant advisory group. "What is really important is the animal's condition and if they are behaving normally."
Animal rights activists maintain that the creatures need far more space. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has 2,700 acres for 23 elephants and the Performing Animal Welfare Society's California sanctuary has 75 acres for eight elephants.
Elephants in the wild can travel dozens of miles in a day, but zoos cite studies showing that they do not need to roam as much if they have enough food, water, and companionship.
"In the wild they are trying to find food, they're foraging. You do get the trade-off in zoos of not needing to forage, so then do they really need that much space?" said Ted Friend, an animal science professor at Texas A&M University who focuses on determining optimum living environments for animals.
Many animal rights organizations say minimal exercise and hard concrete floors cause arthritis and gruesome foot problems. In Defense of Animals conducted a study of member medical records for the Association of Zoos and Aquarium and found more than 60 percent of elephants in zoos suffer from foot problems.
Zoo officials contend those problems are the lingering results of zoo practices from decades ago.
"Fifty years ago we didn't know what concrete surfaces would do to an elephant's feet," Bohmke said. "It's a constant learning process."