Many Seattleites may remember the two-part feature article last December by Seattle Times reporter Michael Berens in which he investigated a failed breeding program and intolerable conditions for elephants (Watoto, Bamboo and Chai) at the Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) and other zoos. In subsequent coverage, The Seattle Times editorial board wrote, “Chai was subsequently the victim — not too strong a word — of 112 attempts to artificially inseminate her” and “Woodland Park Zoo should get out of the elephant-display business. Send Watoto, Bamboo and Chai to one of the handful of sanctuaries that exist. Let them live out their lives with room to move at will across truly open spaces.”
According to Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, this article prompted an enormous number of e-mails to her office from folks concerned about the elephants and calls to send them to a sanctuary. Since then, the Zoo board announced a task force to look at the issue. Its second meeting, held this May, covered the topic of sanctuaries, including issues of facility space and breeding policy.
The task force began by hearing from Kristin Vehrs of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the accrediting body for zoos. Vehrs emphasized the AZA requires zoos to have three or more elephants to meet the animals’ social needs. I later learned that at least 20 zoos, including Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, have only two or even one lonely elephant, yet maintain their AZA accreditation.
Closer to the topic of sanctuaries, Jackie Bennett of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries introduced its organization as the accrediting body for sanctuaries. The Global Federation works with animal sanctuaries worldwide. Such elephant sanctuaries in the United States are located in warmer, drier climates and have wide-open spaces measured in the hundreds to thousands of acres, in contrast to the divided one acre available to Watoto, Bamboo and Chai.
In a sanctuary, elephants are free-roaming and live in social groups of their choosing. Yet, in Seattle, Bamboo and Watoto are incompatible and are managed so one of them is always kept solitary, which is considered cruel for a female elephant. The WPZ elephants are kept in barn stalls 16 to 17 hours a day for more than half of the year due to our climate.
The task force later heard from representatives of two elephant facilities — the National Elephant Center (NEC) and Riddle Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary (REWS) — about their facilities in Florida and Arkansas, respectively. Nicole Meyer of In Defense of Animals (IDA) clarified for the task force that “true sanctuaries” are those that do not participate in breeding elephants so as not to place more animals into captivity. The Global Federation only accredits sanctuaries that do not breed animals for captivity.
Both NEC and REWS either support zoo-breeding programs or actively pursue breeding of elephants in captivity. In contrast, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee do not condone captive breeding and allow the animals to live freely in the sanctuary without being managed with bull hooks, according to Meyer.
PAWS representatives were invited to speak but declined in a letter explaining its elephant sanctuary program. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee was not asked to present to the task force, according to communications manager Angela Spivey, who confirmed that she was prepared to speak that evening but was not included on the agenda.
This was unfortunate because, in considering the future of Watoto, Bamboo and Chai, it is vital to present the perspective of a sanctuary that does not breed elephants. It is important to ensure that Chai is never subjected to a breeding program again and that she lives in a place where no other elephants experience her past trauma.
The question of whether the elephants should be relocated to a sanctuary is quite simply, yes.
Animals evoke deep emotions in us, and many people may feel it would be a loss if Watoto, Bamboo and Chai went to live in a sanctuary. But Berens’ article provided us with knowledge of animal suffering that our community cannot ignore.
I am hopeful that this task force will help us, as a community, to change the mindset that only health exams by zoo veterinarians or compliance with AZA standards can fully inform us about the well-being of elephants.
Many North American zoos are closing their elephant exhibits based on lack of space and research showing that elephants are deeply emotional, self-aware and social beings.
Members of the task force have a wonderful opportunity to help transform the WPZ programs that confine elephants into humane education programs based on the knowledge we have gained that ultimately helped us to see that elephants need to be wild and free.
For more information on the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force, visit elephanttaskforce.org. For local advocacy information, visit Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants at freewpzelephants.com.
CHRISTIE LAGALLY writes a blog called “Sniffing Out Home: A Search for Animal Welfare Solutions” at www.sniffingouthome.org and is host of Living Humane on KKNW 1150 AM (livinghumane.com).
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