Did neglect kill Woodland Park's African elephant matriarch?

The zoo rebuffed a sanctuary and may have ignored its own task force's advice. Now another elephant is dead.
Crosscut archive image.

The late Watoto in the foreground. Bamboo is behind her.

The zoo rebuffed a sanctuary and may have ignored its own task force's advice. Now another elephant is dead.

At 7 a.m. on August 22, zookeepers noticed an African elephant named Watoto, a fixture at Woodland Park Zoo for 43 years, lying on the ground, unable to stand. They tried to lift her to feet, using first what the zoo described as “cloth straps,” then “heavy machinery.” According to a posting that day on the WPZ blog, these efforts failed. According to subsequent releases from the zoo, they succeeded in getting Watoto to her feet but she couldn’t stay up.

“With compassion and sadness,” as the blog post put it, “Woodland Park Zoo's keepers and animal health staff made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her.”

The keepers’ sadness is certainly genuine. Whether the institution they work for treated Watoto with compassion and the good judgment that makes compassion meaningful, is another question. Rather than the unpredictable but inevitable tragedy that zoo officials have tried to portray, Watoto’s passing was a death foretold and possibly avoidable.

But Woodland Park refused or neglected to take several measures that might have prevented it — measures urged not just by its critics, but by the much-touted task force it convened last year to review its embattled elephant program.

Elephant advocates and other critics slammed the task force for its lack of elephant specialists and shortage of animal-care experts. The zoo nevertheless trumpeted one of the panel’s findings, that the three elephants received “excellent care” — without going into the fine print. That fine print included these recommendations:

  • If it can be done safely, reintegrate Bamboo and Watoto to reduce isolation and improve the social welfare of the herd. [The dominant Watoto did not get along with Bamboo, the zoo’s senior Asian elephant. Such conflicts can be fatal, so the two were separated. Because Woodland Park’s elephant house isn’t designed to accommodate such separation, this caused both – Bamboo especially – to be isolated and confined.]
  • If reintegration cannot be done safely, WPZ should consider transferring one elephant to another AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums]'ꀐaccredited facility that will provide a healthy and high quality environment.
  • Upgrading cameras in the barn to allow 24'ꀐhour monitoring and data collection of the elephants.

On that last score, the cameras, which don’t record effectively at night, apparently were not upgraded — even though the zoo’s last elephant fatality, young Hansa, likewise succumbed overnight after appearing healthy the day before. Cameras weren’t deployed in the yard, where Watoto was found. There’s no knowing when she went down; the zoo has declared that its “night keeper staff routinely checks on animals throughout the night.” But zoo officials will not say when keepers last checked on Watoto, or answer any other questions.

When elephants stay down too long, their enormous weight crushes their lungs and other organs. Elephants in Los Angeles and other zoos have recovered after going down and being lifted, often by local fire departments. The zoo likewise won’t say whether it considered or tried to bring in the fire department.

On the question of transferring one elephant, Woodland Park’s actions (or inaction) seem even more problematic. Watoto, the lone African elephant in an Asian group, was the obvious candidate.

Housing African elephants with Asians goes against good practice and AZA recommendations for several reasons: The two species are temperamentally and behaviorally different, though Watoto nevertheless proved a good “auntie” to baby Hansa. African elephants can be asymptomatic carriers of a herpes virus that’s deadly to young Asians, and which did in fact kill Hansa. Watoto once tested positive for the virus, but this result was later declared a false positive. And conflicts between female African and Asian elephants (e.g. Watoto and Bamboo) can be fatal for the latter, because only the Africans have tusks.

Last spring, WPZ received an invitation from the sanctuary that elephant advocates would most like to send Watoto to: Ark 2000, operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS, not to be confused with our local Progressive Animal Welfare Society). Fueled by wealthy donors and a fat corporate-espionage legal settlement with the Ringling circus operation, PAWS has expanded greatly since it was founded in 1984 by an ex-trainer as a refuge for Hollywood’s animal has-beens.

Ark 2000, the largest of its three sanctuaries, covers 2,300 acres, more than 100 of them occupied by six African and five Asian elephants separated into species and gender groups. (Woodland Park’s elephant yard is one acre.)

On May 28, Ed Stewart, PAWS’s president and cofounder, wrote to WPZ director Deborah Jensen to suggest Ark 2000 as a possible home for Watoto, whom he understood the zoo was “planning to relocate.”

Jensen wrote back to decline, saying that WPZ was “committed to placing Watoto in an AZA accredited institution.” Its goal was “to integrate her with a healthy, compatible social grouping that ensures her ongoing health and well-being.”

This is the stock line recited by zoos that refuse to release their zoos to sanctuaries. But health and quality of care are not the real issues; they’re higher at PAWS than at many AZA-accredited institutions. What excludes PAWS and other sanctuaries from AZA certification is that they refuse to subscribe to the zoo association’s agenda of breeding captive elephants, ostensibly to sustain the species but actually to sustain the crowd-pleasing zoo population.

Nevertheless, more and more zoos have sent their aged, ailing and solitary elephants to sanctuaries. PAWS has received them from the Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Toronto, Los Angeles and Anchorage zoos – in the last case one that had gone down, but been successfully lifted by a fire crane. Woodland Park itself earlier this year sent two snow leopards to a small, unaccredited zoo in Big Bear Lake, California, that could provide the rehabilitation they needed.

Woodland Park officials won’t say whether they had located any other potential homes for Watoto. Instead, they suggest the effort would have been futile. In the press release, WPZ chief operations officer Bruce Bohmke portrayed the passing of this “geriatric elephant” as natural and all but inevitable: “Watoto has lived a long, healthful life at Woodland Park Zoo….. We believe her elderly age at 45 years old contributed to her passing.” But 45-year-old elephants are hardly elderly or geriatric — except in zoos, where they commonly die in their 40s.

In the wild, if they aren’t killed by poachers or other hostile humans (a big “if” in much of their range), elephants remain healthy and vigorous into their 60s, occasionally their 70s; many breed in the 50s, some in their 60s. Circus elephants and Asian working elephants likewise last longer, if they’re well cared for (another big if). But inactivity and tedium wear hard on zoo elephants, who suffer many of the same ills as the humans who come to ogle them: excess weight, arthritis, circulatory and digestive problems, foot sores (which can kill) and depression.

Though it won’t answer any questions, WPZ has posted a “Setting the Record Straight” page to rebut “inflammatory campaigns from local and national activist groups and the media they garner.” (Take that, Seattle Times.) This page compares elephants in their 50s and 60s to the rare, frail “humans who have lived for a span of 100 years or more” and declares that “in the wild, the median life expectancy from birth is 41 years for female African elephants.” The first contention is specious, the second misleading at best.

That “median life expectancy” comes from one study, by Cynthia Moss, of a single population in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. As Moss notes (and WPZ doesn’t), 16 percent of the Amboseli females died in childhood. More were shot by poachers or speared by Maasai herders, or perished in a severe drought. Those who escaped these fates enjoyed a vigorous maturity that Watoto didn’t have a chance at.

What will her passing mean for Woodland Park’s two remaining elephants? For Chai, who already paces and shuffles persistently (a sign of stress and/or boredom), the loss of another companion may bring more stress. Bamboo will enjoy more freedom and less isolation now that she won’t have to be separated from the domineering Watoto.

This latest loss from what was a few years ago a five-elephant community puts Woodland Park below the AZA-recommended threshold (three elephants) for a viable herd. That puts pressure on the zoo to grow or disband its elephant program. 

Watoto’s passing removes one potential herpes vector endangering any future calves the zoo produces — something it’s still officially committed to doing. But will it want to continue down what has become a trail of tears? Watoto’s death on top of Hansa’s underscores the decade-long campaign by those "activist groups" to shut Seattle’s sad elephant barn and give the big girls a second chance in a sanctuary.

Those activists trumpet the result of a TV call-in in which 84 percent of respondents voted for sending them off. Such self-selected “polls” have no statistical validity, but they do indicate where the strongest feelings lie. And the Seattle Times continues editorializing for closing the way local newspapers used to plump for building an elephant house.

Prodded by the well-organized opposition, the mayor's office has for months been nudging the zoo's board and administration to chart a different course for its elephants. Members of the City Council, which provides a substantial minority of the independent zoo's funds, are also bearing down. No one's talking publicly, but rumbles are spreading, like the thunder of distant herd, of big changes soon to come for Seattle’s remaining elephants.


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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.