Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo defends treatment of elephants

Elephant insemination
Asian elephant Chai, 32 years old, was artificially inseminated at the Woodland Park Zoo. Dr. Dennis Schmitt (standing, in a maroon shirt), a leading expert in elephant reproductive physiology, joined the zoo's elephant management and animal health staff in directing the assisted reproduction technique. (Dennis Dow) | Zoom
Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo is defending itself against accusations of animal mistreatment and illegal breeding practices.

A scathing article written in The Stranger cites a lawsuit filed against the City of Seattle, which claims the zoo participates in abusive breeding practices and subjects the elephants to conditions that lead to severe foot injuries.

On Friday, Bruce Bohmke, zoo Chief Operations Officer, defended the zoo on News Talk 97.3 KIRO FM's Ross and Burbank Show saying The Stranger's story is, "full of half truths and inaccuracies. They just made some of that stuff up."

At issue was whether the elephants at Woodland Park have enough room. While Bohmke conceded that "confinement of any animal has an effect on the animal," he also said the zoo association they're accredited with requires 1/3 of an acre per elephant.

"We certainly have that." Bohmke explained the article's World Wildlife Fund citation that elephants in captivity need 247 acres to roam and wild elephants need to walk 20 miles per day is inaccurate.

"Elephants do walk 20 miles a day in extreme conditions where they're trying to find food or water and they're desperate. Most studies that have been done on elephants in the wild talk about how they move maybe three miles a day and, in some cases where there's abundant food and water, they move very little."

Bohmke said giving zoo animals a rich environment is one of the best ways to keep them stimulated and happy.

"They can lay down, they can dig, they can move around and manipulate their environment; that's what's important to animals...to behave naturally."

Besides the lack of room to roam, the article and lawsuit point out the zoo's 57 procedures to artificially inseminate Chai, which Bohmke clarified.

"About 48 of those inseminations were done more than 10 years ago. They weren't real inseminations. They were attempts to just inseminate by putting semen into the elephant, which was not, as we know now through studies in captivity, an effective way to inseminate them," Bohmke said. "We have an effective way to inseminate them now and we have had at least one pregnancy because of that, which unfortunately ended up in a miscarriage."

Bohmke said the animals are trained to stand still, but it's impossible to inseminate an unwilling elephant.

"The procedure is very safe and supervised by our veterinarian staff. We have veterinary specialists that help us do this. It's about as good as it can be," he said.

As for foot problems, Bohmke said the barn floor features rubber surfaces and the staff performs daily inspections.

"We give them pedicures on a weekly basis," he said.

According to Bohmke, the zoo's elephants are over 40 and it wouldn't be surprising if some of them developed osteoarthritis.

"It's a human/animal/mammal condition that just happens. It happens in the wild. It happens in captivity," he said.

Bohmke wanted to remind people the "zoos are staffed by a whole bunch of caring scientists that really know animals very well" and the reason for keeping elephants in zoos is to help save them in the wild.

If you opened the gates to free the animals, Bohmke said he's not sure what they would do.

"I will tell you that there are a lot of stories of zoo animals escaping that are extremely unhappy until they can get back to their enclosure. It's their home. That's where they're comfortable."

(Front page photo by Ryan Hawk)


Stephanie Klein, MyNorthwest.com Editor
Stephanie joined the MyNorthwest.com team in February 2008. She has built the site into a two-time National Edward R. Murrow Award winner (Best Radio Website 2010, 2012).
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