Humans aren’t the only species in the animal kingdom with an obesity problem. A foundation in Northern California plans to open an elephant “fat farm” dedicated to improving the health of captive elephants in North America, 75 percent of whom are overweight according to a recent study.
"The general public are familiar with Disney and the tale of Dumbo," Deborah Olson, executive director of the International Elephant Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal "They're drawn as round creatures, so the general public has this conception that they're round instead of what they truly look like in the wild."
The so-called fat farm intends to tackle incidents of elephant obesity by giving them more room to run around and feeding them a high-fiber diet. An initial 3-5 elephants on the site will grow into 12 to 15 over the course of two decades.
The Ndovo Foundation, started by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Roger McNamee, is pioneering the 4,900-acre preserve and currently taking the final steps to purchase the ranch land, though the project is still awaiting approval from Tehama County to open.
Ndovo is the Swahili word for elephant, an animal dear to McNamee’s heart since growing up with Dr. Suess’s Horton the Elephant as a childhood role model, a spokesperson for the foundation said.
The Oakland Zoo staff has agreed to supervise the preserve that will be home to mostly African elephants, housing quarters for researchers, education facilities and veterinary services.
The health threats of obesity in humans are no different for elephants. Overweight zoo elephants, who tend to pack the pounds onto their rear ends, suffer from cardiac arrest, arthritis and infertility -- conditions that pose a serious concern when many African elephant populations are endangered.
“In the next 50 years, the captive population will not be viable and will be extinct. In 50 years, there will be no more elephants in zoos,” wildlife endocrinologist Kari Morfeld told the Lincoln Journal Star, which reports that 45 percent of elephants in U.S. zoos are infertile and that only three zoo elephants are born for every five that die.
“The last thing they want to do in zoos is take animals from the wild to stock zoos. We have to take care of the ones we have,” she said. “We want the population to be self-sustaining.”