Task Farce

Publicly, the zoo industry was claiming – and continues to claim today – that “elephants are thriving inside zoos.” It’s a message that AZA officials have delivered repeatedly to lawmakers and regulators, trumpeted in news releases, and highlighted in a recent national marketing campaign. But they know it’s not true. And it never has been. Rather, the decades-long effort by zoos to preserve and protect elephants is failing, exacerbated by substandard conditions and denial of mounting scientific evidence that most elephants do not thrive in captivity.

-Michael J. Berens, Seattle Times

Not ten minutes into the second meeting of the Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force on May 28th and it was becoming sadly clear what direction things were heading, and what that meant in regards to saving the zoo’s three elephants, Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai.

To recap, the zoo – bowing to the pressure of a growing public outcry about its elephant exhibit and, in particular, its attempts to unsuccessfully artificially inseminate Chai over 100 times, which the Seattle Times covered in its excellent expose “Glamour Beasts (The Dark Side of Elephant Captivity)” – formed a task force at the request of the Seattle City Council to conduct “an objective and transparent review of WPZ elephants’ health and care, and the value of the elephant program and exhibit to the zoo’s education and conservation objectives.” WPZ handpicked the fifteen-member board, four of whom currently serve on the zoo’s Board of Directors. A fifth, Task Force co-chair Jan Hendrickson, is the zoo’s former chair and director emeritus. The remaining board members, as In Defense of Animals wrote in their recap of the first meeting in April, “include several attorneys, a public affairs officer, a museum employee, a YWCA board member, and a University of Washington director. None of the panel members have any recognized expertise in captive or wild elephant issues and welfare, or on the subject of public education about elephants and related conservation. In introducing themselves, numerous panel members noted they were ‘brand new to the issue.'”

To their credit, those members not directly associated with the zoo are applying themselves to their appointment as best they can. However, with no formal background on the subject, and with only a limited number of meetings to take in and evaluate mountains of data and research, they face a daunting task in coming up with a recommendation based on an unbiased evaluation of the facts. And their findings are just that: a recommendation to the zoo and not a set of decisions WPZ is beholden to. Given all that, and given that the Task Force was set up by the zoo for the zoo, with one-third of its members directly involved with the zoo at the highest levels, it’s been obvious from the start that there is only one desirable outcome, with every effort being made to achieve that.

Hence the title of this post.

That outcome is most notably in evidence with the appointment of an “Expert Review” panel “to provide an objective evaluation of the elephant program of the Woodland Park Zoo.” The panel – consisting of six members, most if not all of whom have direct ties to zoos and whose recommendation the Task Force will rely heavily on when submitting their report back to the zoo on what to do about WPZ’s elephant exhibit and breeding program – was hand-picked by the Task Force’s one veterinarian, WPZ Board of Directors member Bryan Slinker, with no dissent or objection, and barely even the slightest interest from the other Task Force members in who these “experts” were.

So when Task Force member Bryce Seidl opened the second meeting by recapping a visit to the zoo that was conducted by some or all of both the Task Force and the Experts Panel (it was unclear who of either the Task Force or Expert Panel was actually in attendance), he happily reported back that the Expert Panel said that, on the whole, the elephants were well taken care of and in an optimal environment, and that the swaying behavior exhibited by the elephants was, according to the Expert Panel, “anticipatory in behavior.” “They’re anticipating feeding, they’re anticipating some sort of activity,” Seidl remarked with an excited smile. “Sort of like we do when it’s getting close to lunch time.”

Similar statements were also used by the Los Angeles Zoo in defending their elephant exhibit against a lawsuit, where they likened an elephant’s head-bobbing to a dog wagging its tail from happiness. L.A. County Superior Court Judge John Segal roundly criticized the zoo in a fifty-three page decision last July, finding that the zoo’s elephants were “not healthy, happy and thriving,” saying further of the elephant keeper who brought up the tail-wagging defense that she had “somewhat shocking gaps in her knowledge of elephants and, for someone with the title of senior elephant keeper, had some surprising misconceptions.”

The Expert Panel’s only recommendation regarding Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit was to add some more “soft space” like sand in the elephant barn, but that it was really “not a big deal.” A little more sand indoors, elephants swaying excitedly because they’re anticipating lunch. All of that gleaned from a single, short visit to the zoo’s elephant exhibit, overseen by the zoo and done under the most optimal conditions, unannounced and in private, and reported back to the panel by one of its members – himself by no means an expert on elephant behavior. Not a big deal indeed, and a clear indicator of how rigged the game is in favor of the zoo.

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