Former Woodland Park head sees sad future for elephants in OK

By David Hancocks
Crosscut archive image.

One of Woodland Park Zoo's elephants

By David Hancocks

At a recent art show in Magnuson Park Gallery, children presented paintings in support of Zoo elephants Chai and Bamboo going to a sanctuary instead of to yet another zoo. Stella, age 8, summed up the situation: “We aren’t watching them be elephants. We are watching them be really sad.” Out of the mouth of babes.

The children are not alone in trying to get the elephants to the best possible home. Huge numbers of Seattleites (plus many wild elephant specialists) are convinced, as I am, that environmental conditions and care for elephants at the PAWS Sanctuary in California exceed those of any zoo.

The entire history of elephants at Woodland Park Zoo is one long nightmare, and my personal involvement with it is characterized by frustration. During my tenure as planner and then director at Woodland Park Zoo in the 1970s and 1980s we pioneered the concept of landscape immersion exhibits, a development based on giving both animals and human visitors the closest replication of natural habitats we could devise. It was immediately rejected by zoo experts around America, deemed wasteful of space and depriving visitors of clear and uncluttered views of the animals.

The design concept rested on my assertion (still rejected by most zoo experts) that nature is the norm. Whatever we do in the zoo must be based on what happens in the wild places in which the wild animals evolved. Based on this reasoning, I was always greatly challenged by the idea of having elephants in zoos because we cannot provide conditions to allow them to act like elephants. Early in my time at Woodland Park I proposed that, because of our climate and lack of space, we should send the elephants to a better home.

The responses were swift and severe. I received abusive phone calls from mothers demanding to know why their children should be deprived of the right to see an elephant at the zoo. Schoolchildren, in acts obviously orchestrated by teachers, sent me gaily colored hate mail, and Councilmember Phyllis Lamphere asked how a zoo without an elephant could call itself a zoo, advising me that if I raised the question again it would be Hancocks leaving Seattle, not the elephants.

Crosscut archive image.
David Hancocks

Retreating from, but not abandoning my belief that elephants should not be at Woodland Park, I quietly ensured the Zoo Long Range Plan we produced in 1976 did not include an elephant exhibit. I believed the public view would eventually come to support the idea of moving the elephants to a better home.

That strategy took a big hit the day Mayor Royer’s office called to excitedly inform me that Thai Airways was going to give us elephants to celebrate the purchase of their first Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet. When I asked if we could arrange for something else instead of elephants, I received a response rather similar to the advice Phyllis Lamphere had offered me.

I accepted the inevitable, and took solace in the hope that, with a larger group and more public attention, we would at least be able to build bigger and better quarters. But lobbying to get funds from Parks Department bureaucrats was futile. When bond issues were prepared for a new elephant exhibit, they were loaded with non-glamorous add-ons such as play-field drainage systems and fixing leaky roofs, and they failed.

After several efforts, with no support from the media, City Hall or the general public, and in deep frustration at not being able to resolve what I considered an unacceptable situation for the elephants, I resigned as zoo director.

Ironically, it is a very large and active public voice (and, until very recently, several power brokers in City Hall) now lobbying for the elephants to be sent to a sanctuary. And it is the zoo that is fighting them.

The present zoo administrators have decided to send Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo even though it has a rotten climate for elephants, trains them to perform circus-style tricks and keeps them near an outdoor amphitheater that holds rock-style concerts. They claim to know what’s best for the elephants. Their mantra is, “We are the experts.”

It is worth noting that it was Woodland Park Zoo experts who, shortly after I resigned, changed the elephant keeper regime to an all male group, hired a circus trainer and approved his beating the elephants and using a winch to pull them into painful positions so they would crouch on command. They also introduced all night chaining, by one front and one back leg.

It was Woodland Park Zoo experts who, after these events, sent a psychologically and physically damaged Bamboo to Point Defiance Zoo because she had become “unmanageable,” and had to accept her return after months of misery in Tacoma because she was equally unmanageable there.

It was also Woodland Park Zoo experts who sent Chai on a three-day truck journey to Missouri’s Dickerson Park Zoo to get her pregnant, officially handing over responsibility to that zoo, which resulted in her being beaten with ax handles to make her subservient to new commands. These same experts also happened to know the lethal herpes virus had killed elephants there.

And it is Woodland Park Zoo experts who now think that Chai and Bamboo will have sufficient social skills to become socially integrated at Oklahoma City Zoo, and act as Aunties, clearly unaware that acting as an Aunt requires complex life-long learned behaviors. Neither Chai nor Bamboo have enjoyed a life where they could gain such knowledge.

So, what would life be like for elephants managed by real elephant experts?

First, they would have much more space. (Expert Zoo COO Bruce Bohmke says, “The space issue’s a kind of red herring. It doesn’t mean much to me.”) They would also have better space, with undulating terrain and abundant live vegetation. Their wants and needs would be given priority over all other considerations, so they could act as free agents, choosing their own agendas. (Expert Zoo CEO Deborah Jensen, who has never set foot in the PAWS Sanctuary, thinks elephants suffer there because they are “under stimulated.” In other words, no keepers telling them what to do, and when.)

Chai and Bamboo would be cared for by people who know and understand elephants, who make decisions based on compassion for their needs devoid of ulterior motives. They would enjoy the sort of life offered in the PAWS Sanctuary, where managers have the insight and humility to readily accept and even promote the notion that their facility is not perfect because the elephants are still in captivity.

I used to think that there were zoo elephants and there were wild elephants. Today I have come to realize there are just elephants: Some live in the wild, some in captivity.

Only those in the wild have any chance of living a normal life. Although many wild elephants suffer a horrible death due to poaching (but in protected wild habitats, it should be noted, wild elephants are thriving), all elephants in captivity suffer a deprived life. The scope of their deprivation in captivity is only a matter of degree.

At the PAWS Sanctuary the compromises are minimized to the greatest extent possible. In zoos, the elephants are always first in line for compromises. It is why they often spend so much time in solitary isolation, and are locked indoors for weeks or months in winter, and in Seattle have endured more than a hundred failed attempts at artificial insemination.

Woodland Park Zoo’s staff claim to be experts in elephant care, but they reveal no understanding of elephant biology. They are capable only of prolonging the limited circumstances of zoo life, believing that elephants can be forced to fit zoo regimes. Elephants are inherently ill-adapted for zoo life, and their presence in zoos serves no demonstrated purpose for conservation or for public education. They cannot thrive even in the best zoos, for the demands of public display will always take priority over their psychological, behavioral and social needs.

Zoo visitors can thus only ever hope to see what elephants look like: their form, size and texture. They can never witness the panoply of elephant natural behaviors, never watch them actually be elephants.

If Woodland Park Zoo managers are allowed to send Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo, then children there, like the children of Seattle, will only ever watch them be really sad.

Editor's Note: April 3rd may be decision day for a lawsuit seeking to stop the transport of Bamboo and Chai from Woodland Park to the Oklahoma City Zoo. The Elephant Justice Project, a.k.a. Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, sued last month contending that the 2002 management agreement between the City of Seattle and Woodland Park Zoo is invalid and the zoo has no authority to dispose of city property, i.e. the elephants.

The EJP’s plea for a preliminary injunction blocking the imminent move will be heard at 1:30 p.m at the King County Courthouse, 516 Third Avenue, in the chambers of Judge Palmer Robertson. The campaigners ask any supporters attending to wear jailhouse orange.


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