Activists warn Hanover zoo elephants ‘living in fear’

German TV footage claims to show animals being abused in the course of training

Elephants at Hanover zoo: management rejects claims of mistreatment of its animals. Photograph: Holger Hollemann

Elephants at Hanover zoo: management rejects claims of mistreatment of its animals. Photograph: Holger Hollemann


German animal rights activists have warned that elephants in Hanover zoo are “living in fear” of beatings by their handlers.

On its website, the zoo advertises three new-born baby elephants – “Mousy”, “Fatty” and “Smally” – and visitors are treated to a daily show, in which animals dance, perform synchronised movement and walk around their pen holding each others’ tails with their trunks.

But German television has shown scenes that would make Nellie the elephant pack her trunk all over again, from hidden cameras planted by animal rights group Peta. The animal show is achieved through violent drill using metal hooks on rods.

In one hidden camera scene, a handler hits a young elephant repeatedly on the neck and back, another staff member drags a baby elephant by the neck, causing it to cry out in pain or fear.

In another instance, a trainer can be seen hitting a young elephant on the head and joining forces with two others, also wielding hooks, when the animal tries to escape. Eventually the animal yields, and learns to sit up and “beg”.

Dr Madeleine Martin, animal welfare officer for the state of Hesse, said the “elephant dressage” on display in Hanover came at too high a price for the wellbeing of the animals.

Elephant hook

“The elephant hook is used very regularly and very firmly, it makes me sad,” she said after viewing the footage. “I wouldn’t expect anything like this in a zoo, considering the claims they have about themselves.”

Hanover zoo has dismissed the claims of animal abuse, saying the animals were being “led”.

“You have to repeat the exercises often because you have to train the animals so they follow, that requires regular exercises,” said Andreas Casdorff, director of the zoo. “Our zoo keepers work in a team with their animals. None of them would maliciously hurt an animal.”

But colleagues from other German zoos are not so sure: Prof Manfred Niekisch of Frankfurt zoo said that “beatings and chains are things from a past where people thought they had to master animals”.

International elephant expert Carol Buckley dismissed the claims of Hanover zoo about the nature of the training, saying the animals in their care “live under permanent threat”.

“A failure on the part of the elephant . . . leads to immediate punishment, physical pain, chicanery, intimidation and emotional stress,” she told ARD public television.