Pathology report shines some light on Watoto's death

Arthritic legs put the Woodland Park Zoo's elderly elephant in danger of lying down and never getting up. Was the zoo vigilant enough?
Crosscut archive image.

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

Arthritic legs put the Woodland Park Zoo's elderly elephant in danger of lying down and never getting up. Was the zoo vigilant enough?

It’s taken a while to get the story, and it’s still not the full story. On the morning of August 22 Watoto, the Woodland Park Zoo’s long-resident African elephant, was found down in the yard. She was unable to stand, a perilous condition for elephants, whose lungs and other organs can be crushed under the pressure of lying prone.

After zoo staff failed to get Watoto to stand on her feet and found her life signs declining, they decided to euthanize her. Zoo officials posted the sad news but declined to answer further questions, pending the “pathology report.”

On September 12, Dr. Darin Collins, WPZ’s chief veterinarian, tendered that report, but it wasn’t until October 7 that the zoo announced (broadly) the results. I’ve since waited to obtain, or be denied, the actual report and other documents through public disclosure requests. I received the pathology report and the zoo's security log for that night but was denied the security logs from the preceding week, on grounds those logs don't constitute "animal records," which the zoo is obliged to disclose under its terms with the city.)

Collins’ pathology report contains no bombshells, but it is eye-opening, especially when compared to the way the task force convened by the zoo to review its elephant program last year characterized Watoto’s health and that of her two barn mates. The task force and its “expert panel” concluded that all were “in good medical health” and that  “none of the elephants has significant medical conditions and health issues are being properly managed.”

Watoto's autopsy found several mild to moderate conditions that might or might not be considered “significant,” including atherosclerosis, hypercontraction and some necrosis of muscles along the digestive and urinary tracts (Watoto suffered from colic), and breakdown of skeletal muscle. It found one condition that was certainly significant and likely fatal: “moderate to marked” joint degeration — arthritis — in her legs.

“Moderate to marked” is one step short of “severe.” In human occupational medicine, it means a 67 percent loss of normal function (versus 75 percent in “severe” cases). In elephant care, it means an animal who is in danger of lying down and never getting up.

Nothing unusual about that in zoos. According to published reports, at least 12 elephants in American and Canadian zoos have been found lying dead or dying since June 8, 2007, starting with six-and-a-half-year-old Hansa at Woodland Park. A herpes infection, perhaps contracted from Watoto — African elephants can be asymptomatic carriers — killed young Hansa, but many of the others were like Watoto: middle-aged, overweight and prematurely arthritic. The wages of zoo life.

Common and dangerous though such collapses are, and despite the arthritis that made Watoto a candidate for one, the zoo seems to have done little to prepare for them. Its 2013 Elephant Management Protocol anticipated many types of emergency, including “animal escape; explosion; armed individual; hazardous material or biological spill.” But it made no mention of the much likelier danger of a down elephant.

Alyne Fortang, a leader of the local campaigners pressing the zoo to send its elephants to a roomier sactuary, makes much of the fact that Seattle zoo staff failed to call in the Fire Department to lift Watoto up. Two other zoos (in Anchorage and Los Angeles) did so when their elephants went down, and managed to save them.

But that may be a red herring. It’s not clear that the hook-and-ladder crew could have arrived soon enough or done anything more to save Watoto. Nor were the zoo’s own efforts with what it calls “crane-like machinery” necessarily inadequate. (Zoo officials didn’t help their cause, however, when, in their first reports about the tragedy, they skittered from saying that keepers failed to lift Watoto's four-ton frame to saying that they managed to lift her but couldn’t keep her up.

It’s very likely Watoto was too far gone by then. And that’s the alarming part.

There doesn’t seem to be any way to know how long she was down before she was noticed at 7 a.m. The security guard at the zoo that night did not record any observations of the elephant yard or any other exhibits, but simply noted a “grounds patrol” every hour-and-a-half or so.

Last year the see-no-evil task force made one recommendation that, had it been implemented, might have made a difference. It recommended upgrading the video cameras in the elephant yard for nighttime monitoring. WPZ insists that its staff provides that monitoring. “We have staff on grounds 24/7,” declared zoo officials in an online rebuttal to activists’ charges. “Our night keeper staff routinely checks on animals into the evening and should any emergencies arise, our veterinary team is available 24/7.”

Yes, but only if someone sees those emergencies arise – or, in this case, fall.


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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.