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The elephants in the room: Woodland Park's see-no-evil campaign

A long-awaited expert review of its elephant program suggests the zoo still isn't ready to face inconvenient truths.
Bamboo, the odd girl out in Woodland Park's current elephant arrangements.

Bamboo, the odd girl out in Woodland Park's current elephant arrangements. Eric Scigliano

Last spring, animal-welfare advocates feared a whitewash when Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo launched an “independent” review of its controversial elephant program. Under the moniker Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, they’d campaigned and sued for years to force the city-owned, privately operated zoo to retire its three aging elephants to a more spacious sanctuary in a warmer climate.

Some zoos have sent their aging, often solitary elephants to sanctuaries. But Woodland Park has doggedly defended its elephant management and its efforts to breed new elephants, out of what seems a combination of conservation mission, face-saving pride and calculation. Displaying captive elephants, zoo defenders argue, builds knowledge and “empathy” that can inspire people to help save elephants in the wild. And elephants, especially cute babies like Woodland Park’s late Hansa, are premier visitor magnets.  

The advocates’ efforts nevertheless helped prompt a Seattle Times investigative series on the elephant program’s troubled history and calls from the city council for an inquiry. But the city left it to the zoo to conduct the inquiry. The zoo’s board appointed a citizen task force. And that, in the critics’ view, is where the trouble began.

First, there was the matter of the task force’s composition. It is weighted with public-policy and public-relations professionals plus a few civic eminences, beginning with its co-chairs: environmental attorney and former Department of Ecology director Jay Manning and venture capitalist Jan Hendrickson. Four of the task force's 15 members are also WPZ board members and one is a former member. Others have had working relationships with the zoo, as has at least one senior member of Cocker Fennessy, the public policy/PR firm that has facilitated the task force’s operations, produced its website and fielded the experts it’s heard from.

None of the task force members has worked with elephants, and only two are animal-care professionals: Annette Laico, executive director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, who has asked some of the sharpest questions, and Bryan Slinker, dean of Washington State University’s veterinary school, who hasn’t. He’s also a WPZ board member.

The Friends of WPZ Elephants complain that the task force did not call any of the 13 experts they recommended. Instead, it heard from zoo staff and others affiliated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting organization that sets care standards and also promotes elephant breeding in zoos. Task force co-chair Jay Manning says it invited one prominent zoo critic, “but she demanded conditions we hadn’t granted to anyone else” — no questions till she finished, that a colleague also be invited — “and wouldn’t grant her. So she didn’t speak.”

A linchpin of the process, and of the task force’s credibility, is the expert panel it commissioned to examine the elephants’ condition and the care and facilities provided for them. But that panel raised more red flags, beginning with its make-up. Its chair and facilitator is zoo board and task force member Dr. Bryan Slinker. Last December Slinker and another board member published an op-ed in the Seattle Times stoutly defending Woodland Park against a series of articles in the paper which detailed the ordeals suffered by its resident elephants in the zoo’s drive to breed new generations (a sorry history that I recounted years earlier in a book and Seattle Weekly feature story).


Video courtesy of the Seattle Channel

"We talked about [the op-ed] when they asked me to be on the panel," Slinker told me. "I never would have written it if I 'd known I’d be on the panel. We all decided my credibility was sufficient to allow us to go ahead."

Whatever Slinker’s credibility, the presence of such an insider and advocate — not just sitting on the expert panel but leading it — seems at odds with the task force’s promise to provide “an objective and transparent review” of WPZ’s elephant program, informed by “expert review panel members [who] are outside scientific and medical experts.”


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 7:14 a.m. Inappropriate

It was about three years ago I last was at the elephant compound at Woodland Park. My grandchildren and I watched the very strange, autistic looking behavior of the elephants, and particularly one who was simply standing in place rocking repetitively. It was heart-breaking. It was not even a display of elephants, really...this was so un-elephantlike.

In the same way as one sees people behave in "nursing homes".. sitting in the hallway staring and making repetitive motions... rocking... or just holding on the railing in a standing position.. you know there is something more than age or disease that is causing this behavior. It is the incarceration that is doing this. It doesn't take an expert to recognize that.

Heartbreaking. Let those elephants out! You have wasted their lives as captives for many years. Give them some sweetness for the last part of their lives. No one wants their grandchildren to watch elephants sentenced to life in prison.

sgh

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 8:19 a.m. Inappropriate

A "task force" is a fancy type of consultant who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is, breaks your watch, and sends you a big, fat bill. At least one of these elephants has been subjected to attempts at artificial insemination over 50 times, even though she is sterile. That is what I call animal RAPE. Shame on the City of Seattle for funding these animal torturers.

Mud Baby

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

The Woodland Park Zoo feeds a perception that money drives all decisions in their operation. From the high decibel noise of Zoo Tunes directly located within the animals' midst, to their attempts to force a giant money making parking garage into the surrounding neighborhood, to their constant "upgrading" or construction of new buildings that house non-animal retail spaces, it is not surprising to learn of their aggressive attempts to maintain status quo with the elephant program. After all, the elephant is the quintessential zoo animal. The elephant brings the majority of fee paying audiences...even if the audiences must watch these majestic animals in abject misery.

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 11:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Beth, give up.

Money does drive all decisions. Is that much different than how you run your own household? Doubtful.

Zoo Tunes? After all these years, you think the animals are stressed? Doubtful.

As far as the elephants, there is open space at Woodland Park and the Zoo that could be used. Perhaps that would be beneficial for both elephants, and the public who loves elephants. Do it.

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 12:41 p.m. Inappropriate

I concur with prior comments. We live not far from Woodland Park, and dropped our membership years ago in large part due to the appalling mistreatment of the elephants. What is the problem with that pseudo-public entity (Woodland Park Zoological Society); it's behaving like a psychopathic corporation. Is this the consequence of the Seattle City Council shirking responsibility for the facility, transferring management to the WPZS in 2002?

louploup

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 10:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Everything I see and read about the Woodland Park Zoo's elephant managment program is replete with horror stories. Now, thanks to the indepth investigation of this article, it is revealed that Allen Campbell, the infamous circus trainer who was killed by Tyke, the elephant he had abused for years, was hired as a trainer at the Seattle Zoo. This is shocking. Circus elephant trainers routinely use brutal methods. This has been documented in undercover videos and court cases for years. Why would the zoo hire someone like Mr. Campbell? Why are they still attempting to breed when they have met with failure after failure, including introducing a baby elephant to a deadly virus? Why is this task force not addressing the wider issue of the feasibility of having elephants in zoos? Why did they state that it was never their intention to send the elephants to sanctuary? It seems like any task force worth its salt would include all options and examine all relevant facts. In the last sentence, Mr. Manning says people may be surprised by the finding of the task force. I urge Mr. Manning to surprise us with a good ending. Send these long suffering elephants to sanctuary, where they can live out the remainder of their days like real elephants, roaming freely on wide open meadows and foraging on trees, socializing with friends of their choosing; not toughing out yet another cold and rainy winter inside a cramped barn, where it is so small they are forced to walk over their own waste. This is a tragedy. And it needs to stop. Watoto, Bamboo and Chai deserve some freedom at long last. If the task force does not deliver that freedom, I hope the Seattle City Council will step up and make the right and only humane decision for these elephants.

Posted Tue, Oct 15, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

I lost all interest in the WPZ when they almost simultaneously got rid of the pony rides and installed a carousel. The WPZ will get rid of the elephants when and only when it is in their financial interest to do so.

WSDW

Posted Wed, Oct 16, 6:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Be aware of what you're told and by whom. Friends of Woodland Park Zoo elephants' research found that 10 of the 15 Task Force members are financially, personally or professionally invested in the Zoo. The fact that Slinker was kept on the Task Force after they found out he wrote an op-ed claiming the elephants should stay at the zoo rather than going to a sanctuary clearly shows the bias they wanted for the desired outcome.

alyne16

Posted Wed, Oct 16, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

As a retired educator who taught elementary and middle school students using high quality photos and videos about the earth's diverse ecosystems, I have been appalled for years in regards to the conditions of the Woodland Park Zoo's elephants. I have listened to testimony of the panel and its so called experts that the elephants provide great educational value to young students as it shows them the "scale" or size of the elephants and provides a close up view for children. The panel further states that the elephants' presence provides motivation for conservation, BUT interestingly a much larger number of my students in post zoo visit discussions have commented more on the dire effects that captivity and confinement have on the elephants than on conservation.
Students today have access in school and at home to a wild range of educational mediums that include high quality photographs and video of both African and Asian elephants in the wild. They are able to observe the elephants in their native habitat, interacting in maternally led family groups, migrating long distances, foraging, bathing in mud holes and much more.
Definitely the slaughter of elephants in the wild is appalling but as one of my fifth grade students commented, he felt it was far better for the elephants to be killed quickly than to have it stand around or live in a small area all of its life and end up showing the neurotic signs of distress.
Who are the Woodland Park Zoo officials and panel trying to fool...these elephants are and have been suffering for multiple decades. It is so evident that educated youngsters can identify it readily when they look at their behavior and small living quarters.
It is time to stop the rhetoric and move the three WPZ elephants to a sanctuary where they can live the rest of their lives in peace!

Bwilkes

Posted Wed, Oct 16, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I cannot add much to the preceding comments except that I so totally agree with those in favor of sending these elephants to a sanctuary. To me, it has been an unacceptable atrocity to have continued to have these elephants in captivity. I think of their daily lives and how terrible an existence they have. I think of the multiple times that Chai has been abused, raped, against her will. I think of how elephants living in a sanctuary have the freedom to roam and socialize. I wish for one day these so-called experts on the task force could spend one day in a four foot by four foot area and be deprived of their family and friends, and perhaps, have to endure certain indignities similar to those these elephants have to endure. I will never frequent a zoo. I will obviously never take my grand daughter. I stand behind any and every effort made to free these elephants to a sanctuary. To me it is total common sense and common decency, free them!! Let's make that today!

Posted Thu, Oct 17, 12:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I have the same sad experience as sgh when I last took my grandson to the zoo. I've not gone back since. I have an autistic daughter and the elephants' behavior was exactly that of people with severe autism (who feel that they live in a world they don't understand or like and must do self-stim activities to distract themselves from their extreme discomfort) and, as mentioned above, of "normal" people who are incarcerated in nursing homes.

The report will not include anything that the Zoo doesn't want included; the Zoo will not send it's money-making elephants to sancutaries out of the goodness of its heart. People must complain, loudly and often, to the City Council, and tell their friends and families to do so also. A little protesting outside the Zoo with signs would be in order also.

sarah90

Posted Thu, Oct 17, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I was interested in the number of references to Dr Bryan Slinker (veterinarian) in this article. Members of the public seem to be "awed" by anyone who is a DVM, and seem to believe whatever they say - if the DOCTOR says the elephants are healthy (mentally and physically) and well cared for (mentally and physically) then it must be so.

BUT when you look at Dr Slinker's biography from the WSU website (http://www.vetmed.wsu.edu/research_vcapp/slinker.aspx) he has absolutely NO "clinical" experience after leaving vet school i.e. he is a cardiac RESEARCHER, not someone who has ever tended to sick or injured animals. Which is not to say he is not scholarly or smart or accomplished in his field - just that he does not have the hands-on experience of actually working with animals in a clinic or out in the field or farm.

Asking Dr Slinker his opinion as a veterinarian on elephant welfare and care is no different than asking a tax attorney to represent you in a murder trial. Or to have a cardiac researcher to do surgery on your broken leg. An attorney is an attorney is an attorney ??? A doctor is a doctor is a doctor ??? A veterinarian is a veterinarian is a veterinarian ??? It is totally ridiculous to ascribe too much professional credibility to Dr Slinker's opinion as a veterinarian in this matter.

I am saying this about Dr Slinker because I am also a licensed veterinarian (DVM) and I also have research experience (PhD.) I think he has over-stepped his knowledge and experience OR the public and others have over-subscribed knowledge and experience to him as a veterinarian.

Also DVM, PhD

DVM

Posted Sat, Oct 19, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

If you don't like the lack of transparency of the zoo, and the stacked deck of reviewers, please be aware that the city council is planning the same management structure (lack of transparency and public accountability) for Seattle Parks with the Parks Legacy plan.

Catherine

Posted Mon, Oct 21, 11:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, setting up a Metropolitan Parks District to increase the property tax revenue stream available to Seattle Parks seems to have considerable establishment momentum. Under "The Environment" on Ed Murray's http://murray4mayor.com/issues/ : "A MPD will provide new revenue dedicated solely to parks and recreation that cannot be directed to other purposes. The needs of the Seattle park system are urgent and competition for levy funds are great. A Park District is the best strategy to provide dedicated, reliable, and ongoing funding for our park system; we need to stop relying on special levies."

In other words, an increase in property taxes because an MPD is a separate municipality with taxation authority separate from the City of Seattle's. An MPD might be a good idea, but it needs a lot of careful and public vetting.

Talk about an elephant in the room.

louploup

Posted Mon, Oct 21, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

I generally avoid all zoos and places like Seaworld. Never been to WPZ and think it should not be something we have in Seattle.

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