There are four African elephants at the Seneca Park Zoo – Genny C, Lilac, Mochi, and Chana. Louis DiVincenti, the assistant zoo director for animal care and conservation, said they, like the other African animals at the park, are well-acclimated to Rochester's cold winters.
"There’s no temperature that the elephants won’t go out," he said. "They have choices, they choose to go outside, they’ll play in the snow and throw snowballs."
When you imagine injustice to animals, you might not picture elephants throwing snowballs, but Seneca Park Zoo was recently named one of the worst zoos for elephants by an advocacy group called In Defense Of Animals, based in California.
They claim that the zoo is propagating false information about the animals because the elephants, ranging in age from late 30s to early 40s, are referred to as seniors, and even geriatric.
Will Anderson is an advocate on the elephant team of In Defense of Animals. He said they take exception to it because it misleads people.
"An old elephant is not old at 30 and 40 years old," he said. "What they are seeing is the effects of captivity – and captivity kills."
Anderson said they believe that Seneca Park Zoo is passing their elephants off as old, when they have serious health and mobility issues that cannot be explained by age alone.
"When we’re talking about elephants, sure, they could live up to 70 years old. Most don’t, though," he said. "The median life expectancy is a little less than 40."
That’s not entirely true, according to some elephant researchers. For instance, wild elephants living in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya have a median lifespan of about 56 years.
But the misrepresentation of age is only a segue to the main argument made by In Defense of Animals – which is that elephants shouldn’t be in captivity at all, regardless of how well they are treated.
"Zoos are killing elephants both in captivity and the wild," Anderson said. "While the elephants there are older than many elephant populations that are captive in this country, they are still part of the larger problem of telling people that elephants in captivity represent elephants and they do not."
The disagreement seems to come down to one question: Are zoos good or bad?
On top of the list of worst zoos for elephants is the Bronx Zoo, which made national headlines recently for its treatment of Happy – an elephant who, for her physical safety, was isolated from other elephants. Animal rights groups are still arguing for her personhood in court in order to free her, most recently in front of a judge in Orleans County.
Other zoos on the list have been accused of neglect, and abuse using bull hooks.
Over the last few decades the U.S. has had a shifting and complicated relationship with zoos, particularly as some once-radical ideas about animal rights become more mainstream.
But zoos maintain they play an important role in the conservation of wildlife and the care of animals.
Seneca Park said an important part of its mission is connecting people to the animals, and hopefully inspiring them to care. DiVincenti said it’s something he feels passionately about, from personal experience.
"I grew up in New Orleans, so there was a Louisiana nature center outside of New Orleans and my parents made me volunteer there when I was 12 years old. They had alligators and snakes and that sort of thing. That made me like animals and like wildlife in particular."
If that connection is helping local conservation efforts, it’s not helping on a larger scale. The African elephant population continues to decline. One study showed their numbers dropped by 30 percent between 2007 and 2016, largely due to poaching and habitat loss.