Just Walk Away

The Task Force consists primarily of lay people with little to no prior expertise regarding the Earth’s largest terrestrial animal.

-Excerpt from the Final Report of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force

Begun as a way to stem a growing public outcry after a two-part series by The Seattle Times last winter questioned not only the welfare of elephants in zoos in general but Woodland Park Zoo’s specifically, a selection of members from the zoo’s self-appointed Elephant Task Force met one last time on October 22nd to publicly release the panel’s Final Report (PDF). Where The Times pointed out the 112 failed attempts to artificially inseminate Chai, one of the Zoo’s two female Asian elephants, and further uncovered that for every elephant born in captivity in Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoos two die, the Task Force recommended “expeditious strategies to build a multi-generational herd, including the natural breeding of Chai.” And that if Chai weren’t to be bred, the Zoo should instead “consider bringing in additional cows and perhaps a bull to create a multi-generational herd.”

For those who had been following the issue this past year, the recommendation – along with two others from the Task Force based around bringing in more elephants to Woodland Park Zoo – wasn’t surprising. The panel was hand-picked by the zoo, and of its fifteen members four currently sit on the zoo’s Board of Directors. A fifth, Co-Chair Janet Hendrickson, is a former member. The panel included no one from any elephant advocacy organization, and none of its members have any background in elephant behavioral or welfare issues. As mentioned in the above quote leading off this piece, they were a group with self-admittedly “little or no prior expertise” regarding the health and welfare of elephants in captivity or in the wild.

Over six months of hearings comprising some twenty-odd hours of public testimony, everyone asked to speak before the Task Force was either employed by Woodland Park Zoo or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (the by-the-industry-for-the-industry accreditation oversight body), or had working relationships with one or both. With one exception: In Defense of Animals’ Nicole Meyer, whose brief testimony was interrupted by an upset Hendrickson, who berated Meyer for not following the script the panel had given her; and by panel (and Zoo Board of Directors) member Jeff Leppo, who was only interested in assailing her credibility.

Publicly admitting to not being experts, the Task Force relied on a sub-panel to assess the elephants’ health and wellbeing. That “Expert Review Panel” was hand-picked by Task Force member Bryan Slinker – himself a member of the Zoo’s Board of Directors and who, along with Rob Liddell (yet another Board of Directors member), penned an op-ed in The Seattle Times stating that Chai, Bamboo, and Watoto should remain at the zoo.

That the Expert Review Panel themselves all have direct working connections with either Woodland Park Zoo or the AZA, including some who were involved in the 112 failed attempts to artificially inseminate Chai, should come as no surprise at this point in our story. The “expert” member tasked with assessing the behavior and welfare of the zoo’s elephants, Ed Pajor, unsurprisingly had no elephant behavioral expertise whatsoever. Instead, Pajor’s background is in consulting groups like McDonald’s Animal Welfare Panel and the National Pork Board’s Animal Welfare Committee on issues having to do with the care of cows, pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Yes, livestock, which appears to be exactly how the ERP viewed Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai.

In presenting their draft report in August, the ERP joked among themselves about how much elephants enjoyed being artificially inseminated. “A lot of the elephants enjoy the attention during an artificial insemination attempt.” When asked by Task Force member Suzanne Walsh how they knew when to stop an AI procedure, seemingly implying the question of how did keepers know that an elephant was not wishing to participate in such an invasive process, Jeff Wyatt replied that the elephant can simply “choose to walk away.”

Apparently during their visit to Woodland Park Zoo in May to assess the welfare of WPZ’s three elephants, the members of the Expert Review Panel in attendance missed the elephant restraining device used to artificially inseminate Chai, and how exactly it works.

From The Seattle Times:

In lieu of chains, the zoo used a large steel-barred chute with contractible walls that could gently pin an elephant in place. It’s officially known as an “elephant restraint device” or ERD, but zookeepers have nicknamed it the “iron maiden.”

How exactly Chai could, of her own volition, simply “walk away” from the “iron maiden” remains unclear.

Not captured in the linked videos of Wyatt’s embarrassing, if not intentionally outright deceitful, testimony was the expression of disbelief on the faces of many in the audience and several members of the Task Force, including Bryan Slinker, who immediately jumped in to try and save the fumble. It also might explain why the Task Force decided to hold September’s meeting outside the public eye.

That meeting was supposed to see the panel knuckle down on the nuts and bolts of what they’d been charged with by the Zoo; specifically, the status of the elephants’ health and welfare and how Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit contributes to education and conservation. Given the debacle of some of the public testimony from the Expert Panel, and given a growing voice of dissent among a minority of members on the panel, keeping the intrapanel discussion of what their recommendations would be out of the public eye might be best for the Zoo, even if those closed door meetings didn’t exactly square with the Task Force’s charter to have an “objective and transparent review” of Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit.

The report issued from the Expert Review Panel, which the Task Force would rely on as the basis for their own recommendations, unsurprisingly concluded that the health and welfare of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai was “good” overall; that they were provided “excellent” care by zoo staff; that there weren’t significant signs of repetitive behaviors exhibited by any of the elephants; that some minor changes and updates to both the program and elephant housing should be considered, along with trying to reintegrate the herd; that there was no evidence of the EEHV herpes virus even though, oddly enough, Chai’s offspring Hansa died from it; and that the natural breeding of Chai was recommended if the Zoo chose to create a “multi-generational herd experience.” All of which, of course, would appear to sync nicely with what the Zoo has wanted all along.

That “multi-generational herd” statement dovetailed with what Zoo President Deborah Jensen had said earlier in the August meeting. At the outset of the hearings, it appeared the issue would be whether or not to keep the elephants or send them to sanctuary. With less than one acre of room at Woodland Park Zoo for three elephants, who in the wild would normally travel dozens of miles each day, it’s no surprise that many have been advocating for Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai to be sent to a sanctuary such as The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a place where they would have 2,700 acres to roam and explore at their leisure. (Click here for a comparison of the differences between the space available to Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai at Woodland Park Zoo versus The Elephant Sanctuary.) But when Jensen hinted that the Zoo was considering expanding its elephant program – specifically, to bring in a bull with which to impregnate Chai – it came somewhat unexpectedly, though unsurprisingly with hindsight. Why? Instead of using the forum the Task Force provided to simply say the status quo was acceptable, fantastic even, why not use it as a vehicle with which to justify expanding the herd (which would also have the benefit of expanding the Zoo’s gate receipts)?

The Zoo handpicks the Task Force. One of its board members (the one who co-authored an op-ed saying that the elephants should stay at the zoo) handpicks the “expert” sub-panel. Neither contain any elephant behavioral or welfare experts or advocates. The sub-panel reports on creating a “multi-generational” herd, which the Task Force – meeting in private in September to hammer out the final details at the same time the Zoo is holding one of its board meetings – parrots in their final report, whereupon the Zoo jumps up and down with joy at the conclusion, saying in so many words “what an excellent idea!” Clever indeed.

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