(Alyne Fortgang, co-founder, Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, contributed this piece)
Chai bobs her head up and down while pacing, Bamboo paces in circles while swiveling her head and Watoto paces and sways. These stereotypical behaviors exhibited by the elephants held captive at Woodland Park Zoo are the mind’s way of coping with trauma, stress and crushing boredom.
Mothers and daughter elephants live together for their entire life but Bamboo, Chai and Watoto were taken from their mothers and shipped to Seattle to live on display. This was the first of many traumas suffered by the elephants at the hands of Woodland Park Zoo. That was many years ago but sadly, not much has improved for them—and based on the Zoo’s March 2014, 5-year plan for the elephant program not much will.
Decades of scientific research has shown that the earth’s largest land mammal travels great distances, are intelligent problem solvers and care deeply for their family and companions. This research has shown that elephants in zoos suffer and die young. After an analysis of scientific studies, Scientific American reported (March 2014): “Confined elephants often spend their time standing around in cramped quarters. . . . These tortuous conditions inflict serious physical and psychological damage on such smart and sensitive animals. “ . . . captive breeding programs should be terminated.”
The display in which the elephants live was designed in 1986. The flat yard is 1 acre divided into 5 pens. Due to incompatibly, the elephants only have access to part of the acre. There is no live tree in their yard to rub against, peel bark or engage in the most natural foraging behaviors. The wall of trees that surround the exhibit has closed in their sightline to a few hundred yards—for life. And that’s the good news. Our wet and cold climate forces the elephants to be locked in the barn in a barren cage for 16 – 17 hours a day, every day, for about half of the year.
The Zoo’s rejection of science is clear and their compassion is woefully lacking. Instead of retiring the elephants to a sanctuary to heal from their captivity induced ailments, they want to increase the number of elephants with no plan to increase the size of the display. In a Seattle Times interview with Deborah Jensen, President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo, she revealed these details about their plan:
One elephant (Watoto) is being sent away and the Zoo hopes that two elephants will be added plus a baby. So if the Zoo’s plan comes to fruition, their hope is to have 5 elephants who will effectively have less space outdoors and less space in the barn where the elephants are already in the human equivalent of a tiny broom closet.
The meager amount of $1.5 – $3 million dollars the zoo plans to spend over 5 years which includes conservation expenditures will do very little to improve the elephants’ quality of life. San Diego and LA Zoo spent over $42 million to improve their exhibits. The National Zoo in Washington D.C spent $52 million.
Twenty seven zoos have closed, or plan to close, their elephant exhibits. This is what AZA accredited Detroit Zoo said about retiring their elephants to PAWS sanctuary in California: “A fundamental requirement for keeping animals in captivity is that we provide an excellent quality of life. In order to do that we must meet a species’ and an individual’s physical, social and psychological needs. We feel that we can accomplish this for all the animals at the Detroit Zoo, but can’t for elephants. Elephants in general in captivity live shorter lives than in the wild, do not reproduce well, show numerous physical problems and often display psychological problems.”
The Zoo cites the horrific poaching and suffering of elephants in the wild as justification for keeping elephants in Seattle. Their mantra that people need to see an elephant in order to learn about them and act on their behalf is not substantiated by any scientific study nor supported by public opinion. An October 2013 survey showed that 97% of Seattleites knew about elephant poaching which they learned about from varied sources —not from the Zoo. 66% of Seattleites said people can learn about elephants and their conservation via an exhibit that does not have live elephants. Seattleites know that seeing a dysfunctional elephant swaying, pacing and head bobbing is not teaching children the right message.
62% of Seattleites want the elephants retired to a sanctuary in a warmer climate with a vast amount of space.
Woodland Park Zoo’s insignificant and insincere commitment to the elephants well-being will do little to alleviate their tedium, and the unhealthy physical and psychological conditions from which they suffer. It’s time the Zoo stop ignoring science and community values and retire the elephants to a sanctuary.
Please express your outrage by going to Friend of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants’ web site and write to the Seattle City Council and Zoo: http://www.freewpzelephants.com/you-can-help/