Ciao, Chai, and bye-bye, Bamboo. Woodland Park will let its elephants go.

Commentary: The embattled zoo says it will let its last two elephants leave, but only to another zoo.
Crosscut archive image.

The late Watoto in the foreground. Bamboo is behind her. Credit: Flickr user (OvO)

Commentary: The embattled zoo says it will let its last two elephants leave, but only to another zoo.

It’s probably the least radical step the zoo could take under the circumstances. This afternoon, the Woodland Park Zoo invited “only press with credentials” to hear a long-anticipated announcement of plans for its embattled elephant program. It pointedly wanted to keep out the local advocates who have harried the zoo for a decade over its elephant care, and over the fact that it keeps elephants at all.

Woodland Park CEO Deborah Jensen began by declaring that “one thing has become clear” in two years of deliberation over what to do with the zoo’s elephants, which currently number two: “Chai and Bamboo need to be part of a larger herd.” She didn’t mention the August tragedy that helped bring that lesson home: the sudden death in August of Watoto, the zoo’s third (and only African) elephant. Nor the fact that Woodland Park’s “herd” had been quite dysfunctional for years before that: Bamboo was packed off to lonely exile in Tacoma to protect the since-deceased baby Hansa, then separated from Watoto when she returned here.

The zoo apparently failed in its preferred solution, to acquire one or two more Asian elephants and rebuild the family. And so it will send Bamboo and Chai away, for good, probably in the first part of next year.

It will not however send them to the California sanctuary urged by the advocates. Nor to the National Elephant Center, the recently opened Florida retirement home for elephants developed by a coalition of zoos (not including Woodland Park) as an alternative to unaffiliated sanctuaries. Rather, Bamboo and Chai would go to another institution accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). I.e., to a zoo. Their destination is undecided, or at least undisclosed, but the Denver and Los Angeles zoos, which are making the sort of big investments to upgrade their elephant facilities that Woodland Park has been unwilling or unable to make, are two strong prospects.

Jensen, backed by her deputy Bruce Bohmke and top curatorial and veterinary staff, called this the best option for “the long-term health” of Chai and Bamboo. She insisted that their health was what drove the decision. Pressed by reporters as to why California’s roomy, well-regarded Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary couldn’t satisfy that goal, Jensen put forth another criterion for a new home: that it have “an active conservation program,” which means an “active education program”: that people will be able to see the elephants and “learn about their plight in the wild.”

In other words, Bamboo and Chai will continue to be what zoos call “ambassadors for their species,” upholding the increasingly controversial zoo mission. That won’t satisfy any activists but, once Bamboo and Chai are gone, it will take a lot of media and political heat off the zoo.

The move will mark the end of an era that was by turns gleeful, mournful and shameful. A century ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer roused the city’s schoolchildren to pitch in pennies by the bushel to build and fill an elephant house, elephants being a civic prize that real cities were supposed to have. In Woodstock days, the arrival of babies Bamboo and Watoto kindled new elephilic enthusiasm. By the 1980s, however, the dank, dilapidated old barn that the elephants were locked in each night became a civic shame — made much worse when a circus trainer-turned-consultant arrived and had the elephants forcibly chained down to “train” them.

Once again a P-I publisher, Virgil Fassio, fronted a fundraising campaign for a new elephant house. When that house opened in 1989, resplendent in quasi-Thai decoration, it was hailed as the best thing for elephants since mud baths.

But its inflexible, tunnel-like design proved awkward and confining, especially when Baby Hansa arrived and two adult elephants were locked away for weeks to assure her safety. Still, Hansa mania brought big crowds and renewed good feelings — till her sudden death cast the zoo’s epic efforts to get her born in a new, rueful light. Since then, the elephants have weighed heavier and heavier on Woodland Park’s operation and public reputation.

What will happen to the now-obsolete elephant house and its one-acre yard? “We’re likely to create new exhibits there, focused on animals of South and Southeast Asia,” Jensen declared. No doubt she and her staff will be relieved to get on with creating them without the distraction of defending an elephant program they’ve finally admitted is untenable.


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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.