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.