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.
But wait — the Times was all over the baby-elephant story, with endless, intimate reports, many under the rubric “Chai’s Pregnancy Diary.” But they were access-dependent puff pieces, celebrating the heroic efforts of Seattle’s zookeepers to bring us what one hed called “A BIG Bundle of Joy,” and another “A Very, Very Big Bundle of Joy.” These followed on an earlier, globe-trotting series by another Times writer celebrating the wonders of elephant keeping. When it came to light that Chai had been dragged to the ground and severely beaten by Missouri keepers (later prompting federal sanctions), the Times merely noted obliquely that “she was disciplined.”
Better late than never. We can always hope that the next time a cherished institution like the zoo goes down a tragically wrongheaded path, it will take the Seattle Times less than a decade to switch from enabler to watchdog.