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.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!