The Woodland Park Zoo is back in the spotlight after announcing a new plan to expand its elephant program, despite a long history of problems, years of criticism and growing public concern for the elephants who live there.
The zoo currently houses two female Asian elephants, 47-year-old Bamboo and 35-year-old Chai, and one female African elephant, 45-year-old Watoto. Animal advocates have criticized the zoo for mixing the two species, and have been raising concerns about their welfare for years.
According to In Defense of Animals (IDA), all three suffer from problems related to captivity including foot disease and arthritis, in addition to exhibiting abnormal behavior, such as rocking and swaying. Keeping the trio in an outdated enclosure that’s too small for them in an inappropriate climate, along with ridiculous and unsuccessful efforts to breed Chai over the years have also caused contention.
In 2013, the zoo appeared on IDA’s list of the Ten Worst Zoos for Elephants for the seventh time.
In response to growing public concern and a scathing investigation conducted by the Seattle Times, an Elephant Task Force was set up to look into zoo’s elephant program last year and make recommendations for the future. Although some came forward to recommend the zoo’s exhibit be phased out and the elephants be sent to a sanctuary, the task force ultimately concluded that the elephants were just fine, but some environmental modifications were in order.
However, organizations including IDA and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants argued that the task force was biased in favor of the zoo and didn’t fairly evaluate the situation, or take objective advice from experts in the field of elephant husbandry.
Now, the two groups are opposing a move they believe “defies science and Seattle community values.”
At the end of March, the zoo announced a baffling new five-year plan for its elephant program that involves a few modifications to the facility – which was designed in 1986 – and, shockingly, adding yet more elephants.
Deborah Jenson, the zoo’s president and CEO, told the Seattle Times that the zoo hopes to move Watoto out by the end of the year and bring in another female Asian elephant. Will Watoto finally go to a sanctuary to live out her days? Not if the zoo has its way.
According to the Woodland Park Zoo’s website, the zoo will only send elephants to a facility that is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and not to a sanctuary, such as the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, or the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California.
The facilities in California and Tennessee do not share our mission of conservation and education nor do they have the same rigorous elephant care and veterinary standards as AZA. By contrast, AZA-accredited zoos focus not only on the care of individual elephants, but also on the welfare of the total population in North American zoos and on the fate of elephants in the wild.
The zoo continues to defend its elephant program by citing trouble for elephants in the wild and argues that people need to see them in order to care about their plight, but the trio’s advocates disagree with both the zoo’s practices and arguments.
“The suffering of elephants in Asia and Africa does not justify their suffering here,” Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends, told the Seattle Times. “Zoo officials are so entrenched in the 19th century. They just won’t look forward. Instead, they are digging deeper into the past.”
Despite the growing body of scientific evidence that speaks to the sensitivity and intelligence of these giants and the fact that they don’t do well in captivity the zoo will also consider getting yet another younger female they hope to be able to breed.
Apparently by the zoo’s logic, having five elephants in a space that’s too small for three will be an improvement.
Breeding elephants in captivity might benefit the species as a whole if there were plans to return them to them to wild, but that isn’t the intention of the Species Survival Program for elephants at U.S. zoos.
According to the Seattle Times investigation, in order to sustain a population in captivity, zoos will need to bring in 10 new females every year. For an industry that claims to be promoting conservation efforts, potentially taking elephants from the wild or the entertainment industry to increase the numbers doesn’t do anything to support populations in the wild, which is where they should be.
Fortgang further argued in a statement that if the zoo truly cared about conservation in the wild, it could allocate close to a million dollars every year by retiring the elephants to a sanctuary and replacing the the current elephant exhibit with a state-of-the-art educational program. According to a recent survey, sending the trio to a sanctuary is something 62 percent of Seattle residents supported.
The zoo plans to spend up to $3 million on its new endeavors, which sounds like a lot, but it’s a paltry sum next to what other zoos including the San Diego Zoo and LA Zoo put into their elephant exhibits, which was over $42 million for both, according to Friends.
In the end, the zoo is going to waste a lot of time and money, but will only have more suffering elephants in its care than it did to begin with.
How We Can Help
Friends of Woodland Park Zoo is urging the public to speak up for Bamboo, Chai and Watoto by writing to zoo officials and local politicians urging them to support moving the trio to a sanctuary.
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