Will Woodland Park's elephants be OK in Oklahoma?

By Eric Scigliano
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An elephant at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Credit: John Biehler

By Eric Scigliano

There’s one good reason to send a press release on a Friday: to escape the news cycle and get as little coverage as possible for something you’re obliged to announce but really wish people wouldn’t pay attention to.

Coincidence it may be, but on Friday the Woodland Park Zoo announced a decision on the issue that has exercised this animal-loving town and roiled the zoo’s relationship with its patrons at City Hall like none other — where its two elephants should spend their remaining days.

Now Oklahoma City, which (depending on how you look at it) stole or rescued the Seattle Sonics, will score two more troubled Seattle icons. Thirty-six-year-old Chai and 48-year-old Bamboo will move to the Oklahoma City Zoo this spring, as soon as they get accustomed to the trailers they’ll travel in.

That decision incensed but did not surprise the activists who have campaigned for years to have the long-suffering eles sent to a roomier sanctuary rather than another zoo. They now say they’ll sue.

It’s also not likely to soothe relations with the city, which supplies nearly a third of the zoo’s funding. Funds already dedicated are secured under a under a long-term contract with the nonprofit zoo foundation that operates the city-owned zoo. But last October City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, the former chair of the council’s parks committee, sent the zoo’s director, Deborah Jensen, and then-board chair, Nancy Pellegrino, a private email message that began, “I know this is a prickly subject. We need to talk.” Bagshaw nudged Jensen to consider an offer from the activists’ preferred sanctuary, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) to “discuss [Chai’s and Bamboo’s] future.” Otherwise, she hinted, additional levy funding could be jeopardized.

In late January, Bagshaw, four other councilmembers and Mayor Ed Murray wrote Jensen urging that the zoo follow the recommendations of its 2013 Elephant Task Force report, which identified three prime criteria for selecting a home for Bamboo and Chai: a warmer, drier climate; “room to roam”; and “expanded activities and enrichment practices to improve their behavioral health and support good medical health.”

That last is an implicit dig at the monotony and inactivity of zoo life, which don't just show in obsessive movements such as Chai’s shuffling and, to lesser degree, Bamboo’s pacing. They actually kill elephants, through foot infections, arthritis and other joint problems. Case in point: Watoto, Woodland Park’s arthritic African elephant, who was euthanized after she “went down” unnoticed last October and couldn’t get back up.

Focusing “on the welfare of the animals” might mean sending them to a sanctuary rather than a zoo, the mayor and councilmembers concluded. PAWS notably fulfills the warmer/drier and room-to-roam criteria; it has 2,300 acres in California’s Central Valley, including what its co-founder and president, Ed Stewart, describes as “partially completed indoor quarters, as well as 15 wooded mountaintop acres which could be developed for them after funding is secured.” And it’s closer than just about any other prospective home, reducing the stress and risks of transport.

The advocacy group Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants also urges that the zoo consider another operation, the Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in Hohenwald, Tennessee, which federal authorities recently allowed to receive new elephants after an embargo period while it treated tuberculosis in some circus elephants it took in. Jensen dismissed that idea on Friday, because of the tuberculosis and because, as she put it, the Elephant Sanctuary had undergone some “management change.” That’s an understatement; TES suffered considerable turmoil in a schism with its founder, though it seems to have stabilized.

Jensen said the zoo did consider PAWS. That would be a switch from last June, when the zoo was weighing where to send Watoto. At that time Stewart invited Jensen to come down and check. She waved him off, declaring that the zoo was “committed to placing Watoto in an AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquarium] accredited facility,” which PAWS isn’t. (The sanctuaries have their own accrediting organization.) Four months later, Watoto was dead.

Perhaps that tragedy and the public ire and rumbles about prosecution it incited, weighed on Jensen’s mind. This time around she declared that the zoo rejected PAWS because it would take too long for it to raise money and finish building quarters for Bamboo and Chai. And also because of the tuberculosis carried (though not active) in some of the elephants PAWS has given shelter too.

This would require keeping Chai and Bamboo separate, limiting chances to integrate them into a group, another of Woodland Park’s stated goals. And even if they did integrate, it wouldn’t be into the more natural “multigenerational herd” that the zoo also considers a priority.

The Oklahoma zoo does have three times as much turf for elephants – 3.2 acres, divided into three yards – as Seattle. But it also has more elephants – seven, if Chai and Bamboo make it there. It seems they’d share a space about the size of their current grounds with whichever Oklahoma elephants, if any, they buddy up with.

And that’s a big if. Chai, easygoing and submissive, tends to fit in readily. Not so the more prickly (and cleverer) Bamboo. She had to be separated from the dominant Watoto, the late baby Hansa and the resident elephants at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo, where she was sent to ensure she didn’t swat Hansa. Social integration is a noble goal, but nothing will likely turn Bamboo into a herd auntie.

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The herd at Oklahoma City Zoo. Credit: Oklahoma City Zoo.

Meteorologically speaking, Oklahoma City is far from ideal. It’s a bit drier than Seattle, averaging 36 annual inches of rain, mostly in the warm months when it won’t chill the elephants. But its outwardly mild average temperatures mask severe extremes: average daily lows of 25 degrees Fahrenheit in January and 29 in February and an all-time record low of minus 17, with frequent winter warm spells. This winter the elephants would have been stuck inside much more there than in Seattle.

At 2,000 miles, the drive there from Seattle will be no picnic. Elephants have traveled farther, of course – from Toronto to PAWS in California, for example. But at least one East Coast zoo that considered taking the Seattle girls deferred because of the distance.

Then there’s the TB issue. Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, contends the zoo is “using it as a smokescreen.” Tuberculosis has spread widely in American zoos and circuses, and latent cases have often gone undiagnosed for years. That might be because some owners, preferring not to find it and face the consequences, performed only cursory trunk washes, the required diagnostic technique.

“I don’t know anyone who does a more thorough trunk wash than we do,” PAWS’s Ed Stewart told me last fall. His sanctuary currently has no active TB cases; one who was sick died. It quarantines another who was exposed, even though she hasn’t tested positive, and isolates a bull whom Stewart considers at risk because he came from a circus. The Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary has treated its two active TB cases.

It’s inevitable that the sanctuaries, as homes of last resort, will receive infected animals. But they have the space to isolate them and (after some bungling at TES) seem to have the capability and will to manage them.

Woodland Park didn’t seem so concerned about TB (or about cold winters) when it sent Sri, a third elephant it still owns, to the St. Louis Zoo on a breeding loan in 2002. Two years earlier a St. Louis elephant’s necropsy had shown latent TB. Another St. Louis elephant later developed an active case and was treated. Sri is still at St. Louis, though she won’t be breeding; she’s still carrying the fetus that died in her first attempt.

Regardless, American elephants don’t die of tuberculosis. The young ones die of a more insidious plague, the sort of herpes infection that killed Hansa. Those who get old before their time, like Watoto, die because of joint and foot problems.

Herpes is one of many reasons the sanctuaries and activists oppose breeding elephants in captivity. And that’s a fundamental schism between them and the zoos. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums upholds breeding as a sacred trust; it may not save them in the wild, but it’s the only hope to sustain the zoo population.

The Oklahoma zoo has an active breeding program. After more than 100 failed artificial inseminations, Chai’s fertility is uncertain, but zoo officials say she may be bred. Then we might find out if she carries the herpes that killed Hansa.

Still, it could be worse. As one zoo-industry insider unconnected to the issue told me, “There were some places that really wanted [Chai and Bamboo] that are a lot worse than OKC.”

But the decision hardly ends Woodland Park’s elephant troubles. Ed Stewart tries to avoid the fray, to work with everyone and say a bad word about no one. But as we spoke he couldn’t help marveling at the “arrogance of the zoo world” as it persists on a course that’s clearly not working. Still, he mused, the issue is tied up in local pride: “People get very defensive about their football teams and their zoos.”

Whoops. Will Oklahoma City come for the Seahawks next?


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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.