When I arrived at Woodland Park Zoo this morning, it was bath time for Watoto, Bamboo and Chai. Those are the zoo's three elephants, all females, ages 44, 46 and 34, respectively. They've all lived at the Seattle zoo since they were one year old. After a life spent entertaining and educating at the zoo, a group called Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants wants the elephants set free.
"Science has shown now that elephants are not good candidates for captivity," says Lisa Kane, an elephant advocate who collaborates with Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. "Zoos all sit on small footprints. Even if you gave over the entire Woodland Park Zoo to elephants, and I think it's only 40, 50, 60 acres, that would still be an incredibly small space."
Lisa says when the elephants aren't outside entertaining zoo patrons, they're kept alone, in a characterless barn the size of a large garage.
"There's not much for them to do. From the elephant's point of view, they've stepped out of the barn every single day for 25 years and looked at the same site line. The exact same trees. The exact same everything. There's no change, there's no variety, there's no novelty. These are creatures with enormous brains. It's hard for me even to fathom the tedium of the lives they lead at Woodland Park Zoo."
Woodland Park Zoo animal curator Martin Ramirez says the issues of space are merely an opinion.
"Our exhibit is about a quarter mile in length. They could walk that and often do. I saw a study a few years ago where they put GPS collars on wild elephants. When food was scarce, elephants traveled 50, 60, 70 miles a day. When food was readily available, they didn't go very far. That points to me, it is about resources and where their food is."
Lisa says that one of the elephants doesn't get along with the others, so she's forced to spend a lot of time alone, which is really depressing for an elephant.
"They've given up their families which mean more to elephants than human families. Female elephants never leave their mothers. This was research done by Iain Douglas-Hamilton in northern Kenya. I think it's hard for us to imagine the suffering we've inflicted on them."
"We have one elephant who actually kind of prefers to be on her own and isn't as bonded with the African elephant as the others are. Rather than force the issue with them, we do give them their space. They do have plenty of opportunities to interact with each other. The only thing we don't give them is physical time together. For the most part, they are very much in contact with each other."
In order to create a natural family, the zoo has artificially inseminated Chai over 50 times, according to Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants who site vet records. They say it was an invasive and cruel procedure.
"We're not going to going to force these animals to do anything they want to do," said Martin. "So the fact that Chai was willing to go into the space and do these artificial inseminations; it was a very positive experience for her."
This is a tough story. It's sort of a "He said, she said" situation. Hearing Lisa's side tugs on emotions. Knowing that elephants are highly intelligent animals and seeing the size and sparseness of the barn this morning, and the space the elephants have to move in, it's hard not to take her side.
She wants these elephants transferred to one of two United States sanctuaries so they can spend the rest of their lives free. She says other zoos have already taken steps to improve the quality of life for elephants.
"I think there are at least ten, or a dozen at this point, that have either closed down their elephant programs or have made public promises to do so once this last elephant dies," said Lisa. "Why can't we do that?"
But Martin argues that the elephants are treated very well and that they're a huge educational tool to teach the community about elephant conservation.
"The one thing that they don't have to experience here, at the zoo, that they would in the wild, is running for their lives. Constantly being aware of poachers. So I would say their life here is much better than in the wild."
When I stood just feet away from Chai and Watoto this morning, I was in awe of them, and was entranced by their every move. But does my excitement of standing so close to such a large, beautiful, gentle animal fairly override that animal's happiness? Are we being selfish?
"What we're looking at here is a bigger picture," said Martin. "Trying to conserve animals in the wild, trying to do whatever we can to stop poaching in the wild. I've already shown you that our animals receive excellent care. All of their needs are met."
"I like zoos, I think they are an important way for people to be linked to wildlife," said Lisa. "But there are some animals that don't flourish in zoos. When we recognize that, and there's evidence of it, then I think it's important to act on it."