An elephant that was held in captivity for 35 years at a zoo in Puerto Rico has finally been freed and arrived at her new forever home on Friday.
The 41-year-old female elephant, known as Mundi, was orphaned at a young age and later captured from the wild. She was eventually sold to Mayaguez Zoo in Puerto Rico where she lived in isolation for decades while being exploited for entertainment purposes, sometimes having to perform for visitors.
But on Friday, Mundi was transported to the Elephant Refuge North America sanctuary (ERNA) in Attapulgus, Georgia. The rescue and relocation was planned and carried out by non-profit organizations World Animal Protection (WAP), Wild Animal Sanctuary and Elephant Aid International (EAI).
The elephant sanctuary, which is run by the EAI, extends across 850 acres of rolling hills, lush pastures, dense forests, and also features spring-fed lakes, creeks and streams. The climate is suitable enough in the region that the elephants can be outside almost all of the year.
At the refuge—which welcomes elephants retired from zoos and circuses—the needs of the animals come first and they receive individualized care, taking into account past traumas.
The sanctuary is not open to the general public and the animals are able to choose how they spend their time. There are live-stream cameras placed throughout the refuge, however, enabling the public to unobtrusively observe them and learn about their behavior.
Mundi became the third elephant resident at the sanctuary, which is able to accommodate 10 individuals at any one time.
“In a sanctuary she will have more freedom to roam and autonomy over her life in as natural an environment as possible for an elephant in her circumstances,” Lindsay Oliver, with World Animal Protection, U.S., told Newsweek. “Most importantly, she will never again be forced to perform for visitors.”
Mundi, who stands 8 feet tall and weighs 8,000 pounds, has a “calm and curious” personality, according to WAP. She reportedly loves eating pineapple, watermelon and broccoli.
Mundi was one of 63 African savannah elephants orphaned during a mass culling by the government of Zimbabwe in 1984, when she was just 2 years old. Millionaire Arthur Jones subsequently bought the 63 baby elephants and transported them to his property in Ocala, Florida. In 1986, the young herd was separated and sold to zoos, circuses and other private individuals.
“In 1988, Mundi was moved to Mayaguez Zoo in Puerto Rico and has been on display in isolation at the zoo for nearly 35 years,” Oliver said.
“Mundi has lived alone at the zoo for 35 years, in an area of about 15,000 square feet, slightly more than a quarter of an acre, with access to an enclosed shelter. She was on display for visitors during the day, performing tricks and posing for pictures.”
In 2017, Hurricane Maria forced the zoo to close to the public. And in February 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture canceled the zoo’s exhibitor’s license after citing dozens of violations in previous years. These included lack of veterinary care resulting in the death of a tiger, expired food and medications, and a failure to protect animals from extreme heat and physical hazards, among other issues.
In February 2023, Puerto Rico’s government announced the permanent closure of the zoo and soon afterwards the Department of Justice said it had reached an agreement to relocate the animals housed there. ERNA was asked to accept Mundi, and they agreed to take her in.
On Friday, Mundi traveled via a dedicated Boeing 747 airplane from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville, Florida, along with veterinarians and caregivers. She was then transported by truck to the sanctuary in Georgia. Overall, the journey traversed a distance of around 1,400 miles.
Like many other elephants that have lived in captivity for so long, releasing Mundi back into the wild in Africa was not an option.
“Mundi has been in a captive environment since she was two years old and has known little beyond small enclosures,” Oliver said. “While she retains her wild nature and instinctive behaviors, her life of captivity has likely inhibited her ability to successfully integrate into a fully wild environment where she would need to find food on her own.”
While the transportation of Mundi was a success, unfortunately, there are still countless wild animals all over the world that are exploited by the entertainment, tourism and travel industries.
“World Animal Protection is proud to partner with Elephant Aid International to bring Mundi to her new home at Elephant Rescue North America where she will have the freedom to roam in a natural environment. We’re thrilled for Mundi, but there are still thousands of wild animals used for entertainment, and we’ll continue to fight until every animal is free from exploitation,” Oliver said.
Carol Buckley, president and CEO of Elephant Aid International, said Mundi had “suffered in captivity her entire life.
“We look forward to caring for her and giving her the life she deserves,” she said. “Several elephants captured in Zimbabwe along with Mundi so many decades ago are currently enduring performances for visitors at zoos and parks in the United States. We will continue advocating for these animals and all animals suffering in tourist attractions until they are freed from their suffering.”
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