The unexpected death of one of the Woodland Park Zoo’s three elephants last Friday has left her supporters mourning and reignited the debate about their continued captivity in Seattle.
Watoto, an African elephant who was taken from the wild at the tender age of two, has been on display at the zoo for more than four decades.
She was found down and unable to get herself up when zookeepers arrived at work early that morning. According to a statement from the zoo, they tried to lift her with cloth straps and later with heavy machinery but were unsuccessful. Her health continued to deteriorate and the zoo made the “difficult decision” to euthanize her.
Her tragic death leaves two Asian elephants – Bamboo, 47, and Chai, 35 – behind and adds to the controversy that has surrounded the the zoo for years.
Elephant advocates, and organizations including In Defense of Animals (IDA) and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, have long argued that all three suffer from physical and psychological problems as a result of captivity and being kept in an inappropriate climate in an outdated enclosure that’s too small for them. Concerns had also been raised about mixing two species, denying Watoto the companionship of her own kind for her entire life. Last year, the zoo appeared on IDA’s list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants for the seventh time.
Even with more than two dozen zoos having closed their elephant exhibits and the ongoing problems with captivity that were brought to light by a scathing Seattle Times investigation, the Woodland Park Zoo has continued to defend keeping them there and announced a seriously misguided five-year plan earlier this spring that would involve spending about $3 million to modify the facility – which was designed in 1986 – and, shockingly, adding yet more elephants. It also announced plans to move Watoto to another zoo by the end of the year, refusing to even consider sending her to a sanctuary.
In the midst of a lawsuit surrounding the zoo’s lack of transparency, elephant advocates filled a city council meeting last month wearing orange in an effort to urge the council to send Watoto to a sanctuary, not another zoo where she would be forced to live in another inappropriate enclosure.
In a statement released Friday, Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray expressed his condolences, and said “At the same time, I do believe that today’s news should reopen a dialogue in this city about the proper habitat for elephants.”
Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants hope that Watoto’s death will not be in vain and that it will do more than just reopen the conversation about keeping elephants at this particular zoo. Instead they hope that it that will help fuel calls to get the zoo to do what it should have done a long time ago: send its elephants to a sanctuary where they can live out their days in peace, in a more appropriate environment.
Watoto may have been denied freedom from the zoo while she was here on this earth, but it’s not too late to do the right thing for Bamboo and Chai.
Please sign and share the petition urging the Seattle City Council to exercise its authority to have Bamboo and Chai retired to a sanctuary.
Photo credit: Thinkstock
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