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

A long-awaited expert review of its elephant program suggests the zoo still isn't ready to face inconvenient truths.

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.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.

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