The Elephant In the Room

(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.

Bamboo_foot_infectionDecades 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:

  1. efbrazil said,

    People can be so passionate about 1 or 2 elephants or whales. Hogs are about as smart as elephants, and nobody is spending millions of dollars per hog trying to make them more comfortable.

    Maybe we should give the elephants to Bill the Butcher. That would even things out and make for a good show.

    Sun, April 6 at 10:51 am
  2. elephantadvocate said,

    This tragic and easily corrected situation takes 1 step: for WPZ to do what’s right for the elephants and allow them to be released to a sanctuary where they can roam free with companions of their own choosing in a warmer climate. The zoos refusal to acknowledge the advice of unbiased experts amounts to animal abuse. Woodland Park Zoo is a blight on Seattle.

    Sun, April 6 at 11:03 am
  3. Lisa said,

    If anyone knows of any plans for a bunch of people to picket at the WPZ, can you let me know where to sign up? These poor elephants need to have some decent quality of life before they die and that definitely won’t be found at this zoo. And the idea that they are thinking of INCREASING the number of elephants?!! What the hell are they thinking? Oh, wait, that decision is, of course, driven by dollars.

    Sun, April 6 at 12:58 pm
  4. craig said,

    Well said, Alyne!

    Sun, April 6 at 1:49 pm
  5. Kyle P said,

    Can’t we all just agree that zoos in their current form are not suitable for a majority of animals, particularly the larger and roaming ones?

    However I really doubt the validity of the survey statistics in this article. The survey methods seem pretty lame, and common sense tells you that far less than 62% of Seattle residents would want to relocate elephants.

    Sun, April 6 at 3:22 pm
  6. Courtney Scott said,

    Very good article, Seattle has spoken.
    Retire these long suffering elephants to sanctuary now. It is hard to believe that anyone could watch them pace and bob and not know how sad and distressed they are. Free Watoto! Free Chai! Free Bamboo!

    Sun, April 6 at 4:27 pm
  7. Woodland Park Neighbor said,

    The zoo is full of situations that are sad. The elephants really are just largest of the sad situations. The elephants have also suffered from barbaric pregnancy attempts by the zoo’s elephant handlers. See the link below.

    Many of the non-domestic animals present in a manner consitant with confinement. Animals that normally would have a range of hundreds of miles in the wild, “live” in an enclosure that is the equivalent of a postage stamp.

    Why do we have zoos? If the importance of them and the animals within them was paramount, in order to protect the future of a threatened species for instance or to educate people about non-domestic animals, there would be no charge to visit the zoo, much like there Smithsonian.

    Ah, there’s the rub; it’s all about the dollar bill.

    Sun, April 6 at 6:03 pm
  8. Wallyhood said,

    Recently, I decided to thin my flock of egg-laying chickens and put up a note on Craigslist offering some up to anyone who needed one for their soup pot. I got an outpouring of furious and aghast people that I could be so cruel. I was a bit boggled. What’s the difference between my chickens and 49 BILLION that are killed and eaten worldwide each year?

    Anyway, so, yeah, why champion elephants but not farm animals? There are, of course, people fighting for humane treatment of farm animals, and not just vegetarians: many fight for larger pens for chickens and hogs, pasturing cows, etc.

    I guess I try not judge which cause is better than another. Here’s someone spending their time raising money for more green space or bike lanes. Over there is someone fighting to stop global warming, or someone trying to help girls sold into sex slavery or feed those dying of famine. Should I criticize the bike lane person for fighting for a lesser cause? Or applaud everyone that is finding a cause to fight for?

    Sun, April 6 at 9:16 pm
  9. Eileen said,

    Our mind’s are capable of caring for more than one compassionate cause. This post is specifically about the treatment of elephants at the zoo… were you hoping for a full-blown manifesto of inhumane treatment of all animals in it’s entirety? Would you rather that people not care about any issues at all? I get that you’re trying to put things in perspective, but when you complain about how one cause (elephants) gets more attention than the other (hogs), it tends to downplays the problem at hand and just causes us to lose focus altogether.

    Mon, April 7 at 12:35 pm
  10. efbrazil said,

    Well, yes, “hooray for not being apathetic”, but there’s plenty of misguided causes out there that don’t warrant applause. Some are actively destructive like the Koch brothers, others are stupidly destructive like Ralph Nader.

    Attacking the animal lovers that run the zoo for not being humane enough is pretty silly. The zoo has a task force studying the elephant issue and is making an investment of millions of dollars to try to improve things. There are trade offs they need to make in terms of elephant conservation and revenue for habitat and species preservation and they’re doing the best they can.

    On the flip side, the cost of saving an animal from a lifetime of torture at QFC is a couple dollars. If you’re an activist type that cares about animal welfare and have your head screwed on straight then I think you’d picket against inhumane animal sources at QFC, not protest elephant treatment at the zoo.

    Mon, April 7 at 1:06 pm
  11. Donn said,

    I’m with you on the pigs, but not the “animal lovers” at the zoo. Many who work there meet that description, but the people in charge have a lot in common with the meat industry, in my opinion.

    Tue, April 8 at 7:34 am
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