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Task force issues recommendations for Woodland Park Zoo elephants

A task force examining the Woodland Park Zoo's elephants and exhibits issued its final recommendations in a comprehensive report released Tuesday. (Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo)

A task force commissioned to make recommendations about the future of elephants at Woodland Park Zoo says the animals are well cared for, and a majority of its members recommend growing the herd and expanding space to better replicate the experience of elephants in the wild.

The 14-member task force released its final report Tuesday evening after months of meetings. The board was formed earlier this year following years of criticism from outside groups and a scathing Seattle Times series and editorials blasting the health and living conditions of the three remaining Woodland Park Zoo elephants.

"We did find that the elephants are well cared for at the zoo, that their health is good, that it is a good program, but that it can and should be better," said task force co-chair Jay Manning, an environmental attorney and chief of staff to former Gov. Christine Gregoire. "But the task force doesn't believe the status quo is viable in long term."

Manning says the volunteer panel, which included a number of community members as well as four members of the current WPZ board, conducted a thorough, impartial review and carefully considered all opinions and input from a wide variety of experts including veterinarians, animal rights activists, behaviorists and academic researchers.

"We heard from plenty of experts on both sides. I think all of us were captivated early by the power of elephants and it was really the welfare and well-being of the elephants that guided us, more than anything else," Manning said.

The majority of task force members determined keeping elephants in captivity is critical in protecting both existing elephants and fostering elephant conservation for the future as populations continue their dramatic decline.

"It is our hope and our belief that a well run elephant program creates a concern and a knowledge about the state of elephants in the wild and creates ambassadors who will take action to protect and preserve elephants," Manning said.

Growing a multi-generational herd and developing a state-of-the-art elephant facility would take years and a significant investment, Manning admitted. But the panel determined it was feasible.

The recommendations are far from unanimous. A minority of members dissented with the recommendations, instead pushing for the zoo to improve the existing elephant exhibit, allowing the three current elephants to die there, and not bring in new elephants.

Longtime zoo critic Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, has worked for years to get the zoo to close its elephant exhibit and move the animals to a sanctuary. She calls the entire process "a sham" meant to quell the ongoing controversy with little regard for the well being of the elephants.

Fortgang accuses the zoo board of "stacking" the task force to come up with favorable findings and recommendations.

"Ten of the 15 members of the task force, by our research, are financially, personally or professionally involved and vested in the zoo. The health panel was selected by Dr. Bryan Slinker who is a zoo board member and a task force member who co-authored an op-ed saying the elephants are healthy. So there you go. It's the fox guarding the hen house," she said.

Fortgang, along with a minority of the panel, disputes the contention keeping elephants in captivity promotes awareness of the plight of the animals and supports conservation efforts.

"Elephants have been locked up in zoos for 200 to 300 years. The situation of elephants in the wild has never been more dire. So I don't know how that works," she said.

The task force's recommendations are non-binding. The fate of the elephants will ultimately be determined by the Woodland Park Zoo board.

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