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

Bamboo, the odd girl out in Woodland Park's current elephant arrangements. Credit: 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.”

“We didn’t expect Bryan to be very critical of the zoo,” says task force co-chair Jay Manning. Nevertheless, “he’s an excellent academic and veterinarian.” Manning adds that he’s confident the panel has the range of views and expertise to provide a valuable report.

But the breadth of its vision, and even its expertise, are limited in less obvious ways. The expert includes two ethologists — scientists who study how members of a species generally behave in natural settings — but no behaviorists, who examine individual animals’ responses in the unnatural setting of the lab. That’s an unfortunate omission, notes one veteran elephant manager at an out-of-state zoo who’s read the expert panel’s report, since the behaviorist model is more pertinent to evaluating the mental and social well-being of individual animals in the unnatural setting of a zoo. Slinker says that one of the ethologists on the panel, Ed Pajor of the University of Calgary, “is also a very good comparative behaviorist, even though he’s not [certified] as one.”

Only two experts on the panel are elephant specialists: Michele Miller, staff veterinarian at the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation and formerly at Disney World’s elephant exhibit, and Janine Brown, who heads the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Endocrine Research Lab.

Those zoos have been slow to switch to the now-prevalent coercion-free, hands-off system of elephant care called “protected contact” conditioning behavior through rewards rather than physical punishment and domination. And the mission of Brown’s lab is to help breed captive elephants; no question where it stands in the debate over whether elephants should be bred in zoos.

This issue lies at the heart of Seattle’s elephant wars, and of the ordeals suffered by its elephants. But it’s been declared outside the task force’s purview. In one way — a way that suits the zoo’s purposes — the task force is supposed to take a wide view: It “will discuss the status of elephants in the world, the threats to their survival and the options for care of managed elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo.” Contemplating the dire threats to elephants in Asia and Africa may encourage you to cheer anything zoos might do to boost their numbers.

But the task force’s brief is restricted in other ways: It “is not charged with studying broader issues regarding zoos or elephants, nor is it charged with conducting public forums on whether or not elephants should be part of the wildlife collection at the zoo. It will not reconsider the mission of the zoo.” (That passage appears on the zoo’s website but was omitted from the task force’s “for brevity,” says Cocker Fennessy’s Paul Berman.) In other words, the tasl force can consider why but not whether keeping elephants at the zoo is a good thing.

No way to treat an elephant. Credit: nappent/Flickr

Manning says the task force is “well aware” of that contradiction: “We’ve talked a lot about it.” How they’ll resolve it is still a matter of speculation outside the task force — until it finishes its report whose the drafting’s has gone into overtime — and, says Manning, of fervent debate within it.

Meanwhile, the expert panel has rendered its report, but it did little to resolve the lingering issues over Seattle’s elephant care. The report settles on a series of make-do recommendations, avoiding any suggestion of moving the zoo's troubled group of elephants to a preserve, as Times editorialists and others have suggested.

The panel characterizes the elephants’ behavioral problems in surprising ways. Slinker says that over the course of two days’ total the panel viewed the three elephants at all times, except for night time, because the 24-7 video recorded was too poor to be useful. (The experts recommend better video equipment.) The panel reported that 34-year-old Chai, the only WPZ elephant who’s been bred, displayed “moderate” stereotypic behavior, the repetitive movements reflecting boredom, chagrin and helplessness that are signature features of traditional zoos. It noted that her rocking, shuffling and head-bobbing filled 19 percent of the time observed, and peaked at 30 percent in early afternoon. If that’s “moderate” neurotic agitation, what’s severe?

In 1998, after years of failed attempts at artificial insemination, the famously placid Chai was sent to breed at Missouri’s Dickerson Park Zoo. (Where an unhappy elephant recently killed a keeper). Keepers there pulled her to the floor with chains and beat her to make her submit. Chai returned to Seattle with a daughter and a newly conspicuous shuffle and shake. I heard a docent tell visitors she was merely “dancing,” mimicking the swaying of the truck she rode in.

The expert panel offers another exculpatory explanation for Chai’s repetitive movements: They’re “anticipatory” rather than “true stereotypy.” She only performs them while awaiting routine events, such as her morning bath or being let through a gate. But answering when still begs the question why? Elephants don’t commonly pace or shuffle in the wild.

The expert panel makes a more surprising claim about 46-year-old Bamboo, WPZ’s other Asian elephant: that she, like its 44-year-old African elephant Watoto, shows a “very low level” of stereotypy, in her case pacing furiously in circles. Perhaps the panelists saw her on particularly good days. They certainly saw her when the weather was warm and she had more access to the yard. In the cooler months, from October to April, the elephants go into indoor “lockdown” at 4. Bamboo then paces furiously in the small back room, formerly a wading pool, where she is often confined alone. Even in summer I’ve seen her pace for many minutes while waiting to be readmitted to the barn. But that would be dismissed as “anticipatory.”

Bamboo in solitary exile in Tacoma in 2006. Eric Scigliano

The report rightly notes that Bamboo’s pacing began in the dismal old pre-1989 elephant house. It doesn’t mention what triggered it. In the 1970s and early ’80s, she’d been a cheerful, playful, sociable elephant. Then the zoo brought in a circus trainer named Allen Campbell to upgrade its elephant management. He had Bamboo, Watoto and their housemates chained at night, and used beatings and block-and-tackle to make them submit. Campbell was later chased down and killed in Honolulu by an escaped circus elephant; elephants remember those who cross them. Back in Seattle, the uproar over the chaining fueled the campaign to build the larger, showier current barn. Bamboo kept pacing.

She paced even more after Chai’s daughter Hansa was born, thanks in part to a basic flaw in those quarters: They’re arranged like a tunnel, with just one entry through the main chamber. The keepers mistrusted Bamboo around the vulnerable tyke, so they kept her locked in a small back room for Hansa’s first 17 days.

The birth launched a cycle of woe for “Boo,” who’s lived a semi-solitary life ever since. To protect Hansa, Woodland Park sent her to Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo. But its resident elephants didn’t accept her, and she was kept separate. After Hansa died, in 2007, Bamboo returned to Seattle. But keepers now feared friction between her and the dominant Watoto. The stakes in such encounters are compounded by the fact that Watoto, as an African elephant, has one long, potentially deadly tusk (she lost the other tusk in 2010). And so, as in Tacoma, Bamboo spends most of her time alone, an unnatural circumstance for creatures as social as female elephants.

The expert report acknowledges that contradiction. It urges that the zoo “reintegrate” the three elephants so they can share each other’s company and the awkwardly divided yard and barn space. But it concedes there’s no knowing whether reintegration is possible.

Slinker acknowledges that “the obvious way to correct that would be to send Watoto away.” That would resolve another lingering issue at Woodland Park: the mixing of African and Asian elephants, an anachronism whose consequences extend beyond the Africans’ tusks.

“We decided not to make that recommendation,” says Slinker. “We decided to deal with the elephants we were asked to look at, as they are” — and not consider the interspecies question.

The out-of-state elephant manager finds that omission surprising. “African and Asian elephants are different animals, genetically and behaviorally,” he told me. Their lines separated about 2 million years ago; Asian elephants’ nearest relatives were woolly mammoths. Keepers talk often about differences in temperament: The Africans are “flightier” and the Asians, which have been much more widely domesticated, more “focused.” AZA standards proscribe mixing the two.

The mix can be deadly, and almost certainly was for Hansa. She died in 2007 from massive internal lesions and organ failure caused by the herpes virus EEHV3, which is endemic to African elephants. Adult Asian and African elephants commonly carry different herpes varieties, often asymptomatically; Asian calves have been particularly vulnerable to African varieties. A recent paper by veterinarians at WPZ and other institutions suggests that EEHP3 is more virulent than other elephant herpes.

In 2008 Watoto took sick. According to keeper reports, she tested positive for EEHV3 but recovered with antivirals. Nevertheless, the panel’s draft report flatly stated that herpes testing “always returned a negative result” in all three surviving elephants. That’s a finding with big implications. Whether or not WPZ is “herpes-infested,” as critics claim, may determine whether it can continue breeding elephants, as it fervently wishes to do — and whether it can keep Watoto who, unlike Bamboo, proved helpful as an “auntie” to baby Hansa.

The expert panel has since offered somewhat variable explanations for Watoto’s positive 2008 blood test. Slinker told me that the blood sample was retested and found to be negative “two years later.” A 2010 email from the lab, which the zoo released in response to a FOIA request by Friends of WPZ Elephants, says the sample was retested in 2009 and presumed to be contaminated since it didn’t evince herpes then.

The one-tusked Watoto is the Zoo's only African elephant. Eric Scigliano

An addendum subsequently posted on the panel’s website tells a somewhat different story: “Within a few months [emphasis added] the WPZ veterinary staff had verbal (via phone) confirmation that the initial positive test was a false reading caused by contamination in the diagnostic lab.” It then doubles down on the denial, flipping the credibility issue back on critics in language more typical of political judo than scientific review: “This 2008 document [the original lab test] as distributed in 2013 leaves the false impression that Watoto tested positive for EEHV and was somehow responsible for transmitting it to Hansa. She did not … and she did not.”

For all that vehemence, the issue may be moot. Because herpes virus is diffuse in the blood, and Watoto’s level was already low when she was tested, a second test might miss what a first test accurately detected. "As far as I know,” says Slinker, the virus “was there at Woodland Park — it didn’t come from Dickerson Park.” Then he draws a fine distinction: “As far as we’re concerned Watoto has never been diagnosed with EEHV3. But almost all African elephants are presumed to have it," in a latent state.

Breeding more Asian elephants around an African like Watoto therefore risks more tragedies like Baby Hansa’s. Perhaps the zoo could avert such a tragedy; antiviral treatment is fast improving, and other zoos have managed to save young elephants afflicted with other herpes varieties. But the zeal to deny there is any problem does not inspire confidence in an institution’s capacity for a task as fraught as breeding and raising elephants.

Still, the panel’s findings are far from the last word. Unless the city council intervenes, the zoo board will ultimately decide what to do with Seattle’s long-suffering elephants. The next word will come from the task force, which may finish its report this week, but more likely next week.

“Some people may be surprised,” says Manning. “I think we’ll take a different view than the expert panel did.”

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