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Big changes coming for Woodland Park Zoo elephants

Watoto, Chai and Bamboo at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. (Photo by Ryan Hawk)

Over the past few years, some have questioned the health and well being of Chai, Bamboo and Watoto, the three elephants who live at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Perhaps the loudest advocate for change is the group Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants and its co-founder Alyne Fortgang.

“We want the elephants retired to a sanctuary that would be in a warmer climate and a drier climate, that would offer a vast amount of space and would offer these highly social animals an opportunity to make companions of their own choice.”

She is referring to the fact that two of the elephants do not get along, so they must be kept separate at all times.

Woodland Park Zoo’s president Deborah Jensen says the zoo formed a task force, and over a six month period they examined the elephant program with a critical eye.

“They brought in an outside group of scientists and veterinarians to look at our elephant program and exhibit and they found that our elephants are happy and have good social welfare. They made some recommendations about changes we can make to the exhibit and the facilities.”

But Alyne says the task force is biased.

“Five of the members are current or former zoo board members. One is a former zoo board president. One of the zoo board members appointed the health panel advising the task force. He had previously written an op ed in The Seattle Times stating that the elephants are happy and healthy and should stay at the zoo. So, completely biased.”

One of the big changes the task force recommended is to only focus on Asian elephants. So Watoto, the lone African elephant who does not get along with Bamboo, will find a home at another zoo.

“Asian elephants are actually more endangered in the wild than African elephants,” Deborah said. “So we chose to focus on the more endangered species.”

The zoo says it will devote an additional $1.5 to $3 million over the next five years to the elephant program, which will cover improvements made to the elephant’s living area and give to conservation efforts.

“The largest portion of that funding will go to changes to the exhibit and the facilities,” Deborah said. “But we’ve also made a commitment to double our investment in Asian elephant conservation and then get involved in a campaign that’s called 96 Elephants
because that’s the number of elephants that die every day to poachers. We’d like to get involved in the public campaign to try to save African elephants. It turns out that the United States is the #2 market for ivory. So we really need to redouble our efforts to talk to the public and say: don’t ever buy ivory.”

But Alyne isn’t satisfied.

“The number one reason the zoo says that they want to keep elephants is because people have to see an elephant in order to act on their behalf and save them in the wild. Well, there is no scientific proof that has ever shown that to be true. We are taking this intelligent and social animal and giving it such an impoverished life,” Alyne said. “We are teaching our children the wrong message. This is not education at all. This is selfish entertainment.”

But the zoo’s animal curator, Nancy Hawkes, argues that an animal-human connection is important; which is part of the reason they’re sending Watoto to another zoo and not an elephant sanctuary.

“There is something special about elephants and about getting up close to one,” Nancy said. “I think we do an especially magical job at connecting people to elephants. It’s an entirely different experience to see, smell, hear and feel an elephant than it is to watch it on a screen.”

A few weeks ago, frustrated by the zoo’s unwillingness to disclose information about the elephants, Alyne filed a lawsuit against the Woodland Park Zoo. The zoo isn’t commenting on the pending lawsuit.

Read my story on the Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants from January 2013.

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