Elephants' captivity gets panel's OK

A "strong majority" of Woodland Park Zoo's handpicked review board urges keeping elephants and breeding more, but with better facilities and more education and conservation. A minority challenges the zoo's self-proclaimed mission.
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One of Woodland Park Zoo's elephants

A "strong majority" of Woodland Park Zoo's handpicked review board urges keeping elephants and breeding more, but with better facilities and more education and conservation. A minority challenges the zoo's self-proclaimed mission.

At 6 o’clock tonight at the Seattle Public Library, the task force that the Woodland Park Zoo convened seven months ago to review its controversial elephant exhibit released its long-awaited report to the public. There were figurative tears on the page, evocations of the “transformative” experience of viewing elephants in the zoo and the “profound appreciation and respect for these magnificent animals” that the effort inspired in the task force members themselves.

There may not have been blood on the page as well. But there were irreconcilable differences of opinion — in other words, a minority report.

What task force co-chair Jay Manning calls a “strong majority” concluded that Woodland Park should not only keep the elephants it has (rather than sending them to a more spacious sanctuary as its critics urge); it should breed more — that's what the zoo’s long-range plan already contemplates — toward the end of building a sustainable “multi-generational herd” that would suit the elephants more socially and inspire visitors more ecologically.

But the unreconciled minority didn’t agree. It urges that the zoo phase out its elephant program, renouncing breeding and letting its three current charges (two middle-aged and one getting there) live out their natural lives or retire elsewhere. The minority finds “insufficient evidence” for the view promoted by the zoo and endorsed by the task force majority that seeing and learning about elephants in zoos can move the public to do more to help protect them in the wild. It concludes that the actual amount the zoo spends on its much-touted conservation efforts in elephant range countries, $267,805 since 1998,  “has not been substantial” and urges spending more.

The task force majority likewise urges more aid to wild elephants but stops short of saying Woodland Park has fallen short. Manning noted in a pre-release teleconference that those in-country programs do a lot with what they get, and task force co-chair Jan Hendrickson (a former WPZ board chair) defended the zoo’s record, saying that its outlays for elephant conservation had grown in recent years.

The majority and minority essentially split over a central question they weren’t even supposed to ask: Do animals as big, brainy, sensitive, complex and troublesome as elephants belong in zoos at all? The zoo board had specifically ordered the task force not to consider it, but as Manning said this afternoon, “We found it not only difficult but impossible to ignore.” Still, the zoo won’t be disappointed in the outcome: The majority declared a resounding yes, on grounds of conservation, education and the dire threats to wild elephants.

“Elephants belong in the wild,” the minority concluded. “There are other ways to educate, engage and motivate conservation behavior.”

Still, the two factions concurred on many key points: Bamboo and Watoto, the zoo’s sometimes-fractious Asian and African elephants, should be reintegrated, reducing their social isolation and the awkward, mobility-limiting logistics required to keep them apart  ­— “if it can be done safely.” If not, “WPZ should consider transferring one elephant to another [American Zoo and Aquarium Association-accredited] facility.” That would include only one sanctuary-type facility, an AZA-supported elephant retirement home in Florida, not the California and Tennessee sanctuaries founded by (and locally endorsed by) zoo critics.

The whole task force also agreed that whether Woodland Park stays in the pachyderm business or not, it should significantly improve its elephant facilities: expand the one-acre yard; reduce its potentially dangerous choke points; provide more diverse terrain; open another entrance in the constrictive, tunnel-like barn; improve and expand education efforts.  But it did not consider the feasibility of carving out enough space in the relatively confined zoo, nor opening a new facility elsewhere, as the San Diego and Tacoma zoos have done with their Wild Animal Park and Northwest Trek.

“What we’re recommending is a long way from the status quo,” Manning said emphatically. “It requires significant changes from the zoo.” Not likely enough to satisfy the advocates who’ve watchdogged the elephant house for a decade, and whose calls for an inquiry led to the task force. They may be especially dismayed, if not surprised, at the entire task force’s endorsing and adopting the findings of its expert review panel. Those include the dubious conclusion that Watoto was “never diagnosed” with the African elephant herpes virus that killed Hansa, Woodland Park’s only elephant offspring; hence there’s “no herpes” at the zoo. (Watoto was so diagnosed but the testing lab — at the elephant-breeding Smithsonian National Zoo ­—  later retracted the finding. She remains the likeliest vector to Hansa. That would mean she still carries the latent virus, which could flare up and infect a future vulnerable tot.)

Here, however, a fissure shows even at the top.  When I asked the task force co-chairs if there were any points on which they wished they’d had more information, Manning named one: “The [herpes] latency issue with regard to African elephants. We agreed that requires a level of expertise the task force doesn’t have, so we’ll leave it to the zoo.”

“I would disagree about that,” said Hendrickson. “There’s a full report available. The issue has been discussed over and over by the people responsible.”

But with elephants, nothing is so easily settled.


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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.