In 1998, with that reputation, Sissy was transported briefly to the Houston Zoo before being hopscotched over to the El Paso Zoo, where she was brutally beaten with ax handles by her keepers.
Finally, in January 2000, after enduring decades of endless transfers and abuse, Sissy arrived at the Tennessee sanctuary, where she is expected to live out the rest of her life.
"Sissy's life touches me emotionally," Barbara J. King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of "How Animals Grieve," told The Dodo. "She suffered because she was treated as a commodity ... [she] was thought of as solving a problem for zoos, but the costs for her life are underestimated."
Margaret Whittaker, director of elephant programs at The Elephant Sanctuary, told The Dodo one of the most significant costs of all those years of moving around is that Sissy never had a consistent group of elephants to bond with. "What impacted [Sissy] was years of social isolation that led to abnormal behaviors."
But, says Whittaker, Sissy is resilient, her behavior is quite flexible and her recovery "is amazing."
King says the zig-zagging and cruel tale of Sissy's life is extreme in the zoo system. Sissy's story raises significant concerns about the life of zoo animals behind the scenes, however. Millions of Americans go to the zoo each year. In fact, the number of zoogoers in some years exceeded the number of people who attended professional football games, basketball games, hockey games and baseball games combined. But how many of those people actually looked at the animals and genuinely wondered: Where did these animals come from?
The ecosystem of zoos
"People have this idea that they go to a zoo and there is this individual zoo and here are the zoo's animals," Irus Braverman, professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and author of " Zooland," told The Dodo. "But in fact, it is more like an ecosystem in a way, as artificial as it may be." Movement between zoos and the acquisition of animals is not only common but the "heart and blood of zoos," she says.
Let's start with some basics. Not all zoo animals are born where they're exhibited. Some, like Sissy - and potentially 18 elephants from Swaziland that three U.S. zoos are attempting to secure at this time - are yanked from the wild. Others are transported from one zoo to another. Sometimes they are shipped for well-intended reasons, like diversifying the genetic breeding pool. Maybe a solitary animal needs to have some company or a more suitable climate. Other times, animals are shuffled about for more questionable reasons that disrupt important social bonds and subject them to various other stressors. And before you think you've even seen all the animals at a given zoo, some animals are not even put on display, living out of sight of the public altogether.
Giraffes, sloths, antelope, bears, parrots, porcupines, monkeys, lemurs and lions live in fabricated landscapes their whole lives so the public can stare at them for a passing moment. One study revealed that people look at a zoo elephant for an average of just 79.5 seconds. Rob Laidaw, founder of Zoocheck in Canada told The Dodo that in some cases, it's a lot less: "For a lot of species, the time can be as low as 8 seconds."
There are basically two types of zoos in the U.S. A network of roughly 230 zoos and aquariums are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and as such go through an accreditation process. But there are an equal number of other zoos that generally have far less stringent regulations and are loosely overseen by the USDA. Many of these are colloquially referred to as roadside zoos.
"There are some 250 roadside zoos in the U.S.," Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), told The Dodo. And where the animals come from - unlike the majority who live in the AZA system - is something of a mystery. "We know many roadside zoos breed animals," Wathne says. "We also know they trade and buy animals from other roadside zoos and dealers."
Since USDA files on animals owned by roadside zoos are not available through public records requests, the movement, life and death of many animals in roadside zoos are often elusive.
These zoos, private owners, dealers and animal breeders are all part of a largely hidden network, "and if they want something, they know who to call and can either have [an animal] or find someone to give one to," Wathne says.
The exotic auction
One place where roadside zoos acquire animals are exotic animal auctions, where "exotic animals of every imaginable species - including big cats, bears, wolves, non-human primates, birds - are offered for sale to the highest bidder," says Wathne. The three auctions widely known in the U.S. are Lolli Bros. in Macon, Missouri, the Mt. Hope Auction in Ohio, and the Triple W auction in Cookeville, Tennessee.
A 2014 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch described the scene at the well-known Lolli Bros. auction in Missouri. Inside the auction house were cage after cage of tortoises, hedgehogs and "tiny gliding possums," according to the article. Two marmoset monkeys were sold for $3,000. A 6-month-old red kangaroo "held aloft in a baby blanket by its handler" was sold for $4,000. A leopard-spotted serval: $4,100. Baby monkeys in diapers were up for sale. Cockatoos. Camels. Zebras.