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What a way to go. Woodland Park packs off its elephants.

Chai's 1999 farewell. Credit: Eric Scigliano

On Wednesday, without announcement or ado, the Woodland Park Zoo packed Bamboo and Chai, its two remaining elephants, off to the Oklahoma City Zoo. There they’ll spend their remaining years in another cluster of confined yards and stalls, amidst prairie winters, thundering rock concerts in a nearby
amphitheater, and an assortment of resident elephants they may or (in Bamboo’s case) may not get along with. And, for the first time in nearly a century, Seattle will have no elephants, other than the mastodon bones at the Burke Museum.

Zoo officials, who’d prepared the move for two months, made it within hours of a judge’s dismissing a motion to block the transfer filed by activists who wanted to send Chai and Bamboo to a roomier sanctuary instead.

It was a very different send-off from the one pictured, in 1999, when after scores of failed attempts at artificial insemination, Chai was sent to Springfield, Missouri’s Dickerson Park Zoo to be bred with a real live bull. Keepers brought her out on the lawn for a final up-close, hands-on session with her local fans, young and old.

Such a close encounter between elephant and humans would have been unthinkable here in recent years, for two reasons. First, because Woodland Park had adopted a regimen of “protected contact,” under which even keepers don’t enter the same space as the elephants they care for. And second, because it’s doubtful that the once-placid Chai would be trusted in public since she returned, nervously shuffling, from her travails in Dickerson Park.

In retrospect, that breeding loan, celebrated with such fanfare at the time, actually seems the beginning of the end for Woodland Park’s elephant program. Soon after Chai arrived at Dickerson Park, dehydrated and confused after the long truck ride, the keepers there dragged her down with chains and beat her to make sure she submitted to their commands.

That incident, which brought the Missouri zoo a federal penalty, drew the zoo’s first serious scrutiny from PETA and other animal-welfare advocates. Previously they’d focused on the sufferings of circus elephants; since then, in Seattle and elsewhere, they’ve looked harder — and protested more loudly — at zoos as well.

For a few years, however, Chai’s forced assignation in Missouri played gloriously. The birth of baby Hansa brought a surge of paid attendance and unpaid gushing publicity from the Seattle Times and other media.

Then the fairy tale darkened. Bamboo and Sri, then Woodland Park’s third adult elephant, were consigned to weeks of near-constant solitary confinement in the unsuitably designed barn, to make sure they didn’t menace the fragile tyke. Then they were banished to other zoos — Sri to be bred, unsuccessfully, in Missouri, and Bamboo to solitary exile at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, where the resident elephants rejected her.

Hansa died miserably of the herpes virus that’s decimating young zoo elephants nationwide. Bamboo returned to Seattle but found herself on the outs with Watoto, the elephant yard’s tusked matriarch. Again she’s been kept separate. Watoto, prematurely arthritic like most middle-aged zoo elephants, lay down last fall and never got up.

After that, the protests crescendoed. The zoo administration conceded no credit to them, but it finally decided to let its elephants go — to a zoo, where they will be on public display and (in Chai’s case) available for breeding, not a sanctuary.

We may never know the intra- and inter-zoo discussions that led to the choice of Oklahoma — would Los Angeles, which is closer and has more space, an improving elephant program, and a much milder climate, have taken Bamboo and Chai? But the outcome is more ironic and unsatisfying than even the most zoo-jaded animal rights agitator could imagine: a new zoo home even more unpromising than the old one. And the protests and lawsuits helped bring it about, via the law of unintended consequences. After campaigning for a decade to get the elephants out of Seattle, the activists found themselves suing to keep them here — for now. The fight to send them to a sanctuary could then have resumed.

The zoo has finally unburdened itself of its trophies-turned-targets, but in a way that ensures maximum public and political ill will. Some critics complained about the zoo’s secretly bundling the elephants off with no chance to say goodbye. But that would have meant one more protest, perhaps not a pretty one.

So long, Chai and Bamboo. Here’s hoping Oklahoma works out better than it bodes to. Elephants, like humans, can prove surprisingly resilient. But their plight is inescapable. As anyone who studies or works with or tries to protect them knows, they can break your heart. We do much worse things to them.

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