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The 'Times' exposes the elephant abuse it once abetted

When Woodland Park tormented its elephants in a futile drive to breed new ones, the Seattle Times cheered. Years later it decries the practice.
The late, lamentable Baby Hansa.

The late, lamentable Baby Hansa. Bev Sykes, Wikimedia Commons

Hansa (right) before her death, with her mother, Chai, and Woodland Park's African elephant, Watoto.

Hansa (right) before her death, with her mother, Chai, and Woodland Park's African elephant, Watoto. Eric Scigliano

Bamboo in 2006, when she was exiled to Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo for fear she'd harm the young Hansa.

Bamboo in 2006, when she was exiled to Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo for fear she'd harm the young Hansa. Eric Scigliano

Don’t miss Michael J. Berens’ forceful account, in today’s Seattle Times, of a willful tragedy: American zoos’, and especially our own Woodland Park Zoo's, merciless efforts to breed crowd-magnet baby elephants. But don’t imagine that this much-touted “exposé” is the first exposure of this sad, sorry business. And don’t let the Times off just yet for being a decade late in getting the story, after breathlessly cheering, ad nauseum, the very practices it now deplores.

This isn’t to fault Berens, who did a good job on an important story. Nor the activists who, I’ll bet a jumbo bag of peanuts, put him onto it. But I can’t help finding his report’s appearance frustrating, on two grounds. One is personal, even petty — a combination of “I told you so” and sour grapes, mixed with admiration and resentment journalists feel when someone else does a story we meant to get around to.

Those same activists prodded me to do the elephant exposé last year, and a few years before that. I deferred (though never meant to dismiss) the idea because I’d already done much of it — 11 years ago in a Seattle Weekly cover story, in more depth a half-year later in a book on elephants in captivity and in other human contexts (slightly updated in a British edition two years later called Seeing the Elephant.). I followed up soon afterward in one brief Seattle Weekly report, then another, and again in a longer piece four years later in Seattle Metropolitan on the ordeals of Seattle’s original baby elephant, Bamboo.

After that I slacked off on the subject, even after gaining a suitable outlet for it (Crosscut) last year. (It was a tussle getting the story in SMet, and a chance not to be repeated.) Blame writerly restlessness, the urge to tramp new turf rather than turn over old ground.

Berens uncovers some telling new old facts in that ground, however. For example, I didn’t know that when Woodland Park officials sent Hansa’s future mother, Chai, to be impregnated at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri, they knew that Dickerson Park elephants were infected with a herpes virus that’s lethal to young Asian elephants, and which eventually killed Hansa. (They kept quiet about it.) Nor that it was the 1980 gift of then-baby Chai (from Thai Airways) that forced then-director David Hancocks, to back off from closing Woodland Park’s wretched, run-down elephant exhibit. I knew that the Oregon Zoo’s prolific patriarchs Thonglaw and Packy had been mated with their own daughters and sisters, but not the extent of this gene-damaging interbreeding. The Times quantifies this and other effects of the zoos’ elephant mania with detailed graphics.

Its story does omit other points, of course: that African elephants are asymptomatic carriers of that same herpes virus, so Woodland Park’s keeping the African Watoto (Hansa’s “auntie”) with its Asian elephants, contrary to recommended zoo practice, presented another risk of infection. That baby Hansa’s birth and the Woodland Park elephant house’s showy but dysfunctional design led to Bamboo and the zoo’s fourth adult elephant, Sri, being kept in grim solitary lockdown for 17 days, with troubling psychological effects. (Both failed to fully accept Hansa, and were eventually sent off to other zoos.)

Berens also doesn’t dig into the now-discredited "Noah's Ark" claims that zoos long made about how their captive breeding would sustain elephants and other species endangered in the wild. Perhaps he will in a second installment, due Monday, that will examine the role of the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums in pushing zoos to breed and punishing them if they send their elephants to roomier, more humane sanctuaries in Tennessee and California.

Such omissions, and differences of emphasis, are inevitable, and merely show the importance of having multiple eyes and multiple voices on difficult issues. It would have been good to have the Times, with its jumbo Sunday circulation, on this issue 10 to 15 years ago, when the seeds of the Baby Hansa tragedy and related scandals were, literally, planted.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Better late than never - but don't tell that to Bamboo, Chai and Watoto who have been deprived of all that is natural to a female elephant. Shame on the zoo.

alyne16

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 11:36 a.m. Inappropriate

The profit-motivated misinformation propagated by the Woodland Park Zoo and others about the mental state of their elephants and the appropriateness of keeping them in such small spaces is morally akin to the profit-motivated misinformation propagated by many deniers of the human impacts on global climate change. The City of Seattle owns the zoo facilities and the tax payers of Seattle and King County provide about a third of the operating costs. Why are my tax dollars funding this?

WSDW

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I am hoping that the Oregonian will follow the Seattle Times' lead and start doing some real reporting on the Oregon Zoo. It is about time that the Seattle Times covered this story, and thankfully they did and in a fair amount of depth. The Oregon Zoo's PR campaign along with all our local news media is hopping on the band wagon to promote the newest baby elephant--which brings the number of elephants at the Oregon Zoo to 8--on a little more than 1 acre. Noone seems to question what will happen to the other toddler, 4-year old Samudra. Will he be pushed away from his mother to make room for the new baby, will he be sold to another zoo or a circus--as other elephants from the Oregon Zoo have? Good for the activists in Seattle for pursuing the media and getting finally some major coverage of this topic. Follow our efforts for Packy and the elephants at the Oregon Zoo here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/REAL-Friends-of-Packy-and-the-Animals-of-the-Oregon-Zoo/198274823541369?ref=ts&fref;=ts

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 7:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Just to prove the Zoo has everyone fooled, The Seattle Foundation sanctions the elephant rape facility too. The Foundation advertises giving to the Zoo right NEXT to this article, although the charities rotate. In fact the Foundation and has teamed up with CrossCut to promote giving $ the Zoo. Here: "The Seattle Foundation and Crosscut Public Media(www.Crosscut.com) have joined forces to encourage learning about public affairs in the Puget Sound region, thus supplying citizens with information and increasing the opportunity for a more knowledgeable and engaged community. The effort is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation."

Holla

Posted Mon, Dec 3, 11:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Why on Earth are they even keeping such intelligent, sensitive animals captive? I guess I know the answer, it brings in money and keeps some people employed. As Upton Sinclair said: "it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it." The zoo bureaucrats' salaries are dependent on their not understanding that what they are doing is just plain wrong.

Posted Tue, Dec 4, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

It's the Seattle Times' attempting to keep people like me and spouse, liberal Seattle-ites who cannot stand Blethen's reactionary editorials, from cancelling. One tidbit of decent reporting every month or two should do it...

louploup

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