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Three weeks ago, Tara, the matriarch of the fast-dwindling elephant herd at the Toronto Zoo, was found dying in her enclosure. Staff tried to get her back on her feet, but she never got up. She was 41.

Zoo-raised elephants don't do very well. They're prone to arthritis, lameness, tuberculosis, herpes, infanticide, behavioural disturbances, obesity and infertility. They die younger than wild elephants, and are not self-sustaining in captivity. "Bringing elephants into zoos profoundly impairs their viability," says Georgia Mason, an expert on animal behaviour at the University of Guelph.

At the Edmonton Valley Zoo, activists are demanding that the lone remaining elephant, Lucy, be sent somewhere she can have company. Her companion, Samantha, was shipped off to a breeding program in 2007. Elephants are highly social and suffer in isolation. Lucy also has arthritis and respiratory problems.

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The Calgary Zoo has problems too. Accidents, illness and human error have recently killed off a capybara (a type of large rodent), 41 cownose rays, two baby elephants, a hippopotamus and some gorillas. Although the director says these incidents are unrelated, outside experts have been called in to investigate.

The trouble with zoos is as old as zoos themselves. What's good for the box office isn't always good for the animals. In the age of Animal Planet and heightened awareness over animal welfare, it's time to ask: What are zoos good for any more?

The first public zoo was at Paris's Jardin des Plantes, founded in 1793. In the early days, zoos aimed to have as many specimens as possible, because there was no other way for ordinary people to see them. Until 50 years ago, most zoos were menageries, with many species crammed into small spaces. The science of animal behaviour changed that.

Now, zoos are designed to show animals in something resembling their natural habitat. They developed agendas to promote conservation and protect endangered species. They set up international programs to breed captive lions, tigers and elephants, so they wouldn't have to take replacements from the wild. They also got incredibly expensive to run.

"We created these monsters, and so where do we find the operating money?" asks Peter Karsten, who ran the Calgary Zoo in the 1970s and '80s.

All zoos rely on public subsidies, and all face increasing competition for the public's dollars. They are caught between warring philosophies and factions. On one side are business types, many zookeepers and, in Toronto's case, city councillors, who believe elephants, tigers and borrowed Chinese pandas are essential to attract crowds and revenue. On the other side are scientists and animal activists who point out that despite our best efforts, certain species probably will never thrive in zoos.

"Why would you build a zoo in a northern climate to exhibit tropical animals?" asks Mr. Karsten. When he ran the Calgary Zoo, he got rid of the costly and out-of-place tigers, baboons and elephants in order to focus on cold-climate and native species, which were also cheaper to maintain. After he left, the exotica were brought back. In 2004, an infant elephant was rejected by her mother and died of an overwhelming infection; in 2007, another elephant died of a serious virus.

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The Toronto Zoo has also faced turmoil at the top. Its board is dominated by city councillors, who are not known for their animal expertise or their fiscal prudence. (They have refused the city's request for across-the-board budget cuts.) Board chair Raymond Cho says he's determined to rebuild the elephant exhibit, which is now down to three elderly females.

Mr. Karsten doesn't think that's such a good idea. "Values change," he says. "The bar is higher now, and the public is more informed." We now know that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling, and that the emotional attachments they form with one another may rival our own. They don't belong in zoos any more than we do.

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