To Save Them We Must Enslave Them

The Zoo’s generic assertion that viewing elephants has a “huge” positive impact on visitors is little more than a cherished industry belief. Industry-funded research has been unable to discover statistically significant data showing any change in guest attitudes or values fol­lowing a visit to a zoo. Non–industry funded research categorically discloses no change in guest attitudes nor, sadly, any increased financial support of wildlife conser­vation by guests following visits to zoos.

-Lisa Kane, “An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.”

If Deborah Jensen is to be believed, Woodland Park Zoo and its elephant exhibit are all that stand between wild elephants surviving as a species and their ultimate extinction. Closing her testimony at the June 26th meeting of Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force the Zoo’s President and CEO gave an impassioned speech, claiming that the “choices we make now” will determine the future of not just the Zoo’s elephants but of all elephants.

It’s a strategy the Zoo has been sticking closely to: that their woefully inadequate elephant exhibit not only contributes to animal conservation on the whole but is a defining piece in the survival of the species worldwide. That without Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai the Zoo’s guests will have no other means of being inspired to help make a difference in animal conservation.

That to save them we must enslave them.

Jensen, along with Zoo COO Bruce Bohmke, made separate presentations to that same end. Slide after slide showed big words and numbers but meager actual data to back up the Zoo’s contention that its elephant exhibit specifically makes a tangible difference to conservation. A difference in the public’s perception that it is a vital part of animal conservation? Yes. But an actual measurable difference? Difficult to find when parsing through the two’s presentations and when taking an objective look at the facts.

That’s not to say that the Zoo itself doesn’t play an important part in scientific research and educating the public, and that it doesn’t make positive contributions to animal welfare and conservation on the whole. It absolutely does. But it’s an important distinction to make because the Zoo seems to want both the Task Force and the public at large to believe that those who oppose its elephant exhibit also oppose all that the Zoo does and stands for, which is simply not true; while at the same time implying that the elephant exhibit is directly tied to its other conservation and education programs, which it is not. The elephant exhibit can and should be separated from the rest of the Zoo’s other exhibits and operations and examined in detail.

What elephant advocates have been arguing is that even the briefest amount of time spent researching the issues would cause a reasonable person to conclude that these large, social, and extremely intelligent animals do not fare well in captivity in general, and at Woodland Park Zoo in particular. The Zoo is failing to properly provide for the care and welfare of Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai, and as a result they have spent decades suffering emotionally, physically, and socially; confined to a minimal amount of space when allowed outside during warm weather, and forced into a small barn for most of each day during cold winter months.

When looking at the facts, it’s difficult to grasp how exactly this is a commendable exercise in animal conservation of any kind. The fact that Woodland Park Zoo seems unwilling or incapable of figuring out how to educate and inspire its visitors to become stewards of conservation without having neglected elephants on display boggles the mind.

Oakland Zoo President Joel Parrott spoke to the Task Force via a conference call. That zoo’s six-acre elephant exhibit, which is generally regarded as being a model exhibit for any zoo looking to keep and display elephants, consists of three African elephant cows between the ages of thirty-five and forty years of age, and one eighteen-year-old African bull elephant. Parrot described the size of their exhibit space as the “minimum for four elephants,” saying further that “we are borderline adequate.” If the president of a zoo whose elephant exhibit is highly regarded says that six acres is “borderline adequate” for its four elephants, what does that say about Woodland Park Zoo’s one acre of space for its three elephants?

Parrott also took the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (the by-the-industry-for-the-industry accreditation body) to task for the AZA’s calculations on the minimum amount of space needed for elephants and its position that it’s the quality of space and not necessarily the quantity of space that counts most, calling their recommendations “woefully inadequate.” According to Parrott, the AZA is encouraging zoos to grow their elephant herds as part of its Species Survival Plan, which Oakland Zoo is attempting through natural breeding via their lone bull elephant. But again, if Oakland’s six acres is “minimum” for its four elephants, how would Woodland Park Zoo accommodate a larger herd size if they too were to follow AZA recommendations? Its one acre exhibit is locked inside the Zoo’s ninety-two acre site, which itself has every corner filled with other exhibits and is bordered on its east by a busy local highway and on its west by a busy neighborhood arterial, and bounded on all sides by a densely populated urban environment. There is simply no room for them to expand and even come close to the “minimum” six acres Oakland Zoo has for its four elephants.

In comparison, The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, which has offered to take all three of Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants into its sanctuary free of charge, has 2,700 acres available for its current elephant population of fourteen. 2,700 acres for fourteen elephants versus Woodland Park Zoo’s one measly acre for its three. One would think it would be hard to argue against that kind of math, but that’s exactly what the Zoo did when Bruce Bohmke commented on sending the elephants to a sanctuary. “Any place we would send those elephants would be in captivity.” True, but it would be to the tune of an additional 2,699 acres of room.

Deborah Jensen’s concern is that since The Elephant Sanctuary doesn’t allow guests there would be no “public outpouring of support” to help conserve the species, and so to that end Woodland Park Zoo must keep Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai. It’s true that TES doesn’t allow public visitors, but that doesn’t seem to have deterred them from being able to use the elephants in their sanctuary as ambassadors for conservation, or otherwise educate the public about animal welfare in general and the plight of elephants specifically.

The Elephant Sanctuary is operated as a true sanctuary, and therefore is not open to the general public. Our elephants have lived their entire lives on exhibit, entertaining the public. Our goal is to create an environment where the elephants are not disturbed by human activity. The Elephant Sanctuary exists for two reasons: to provide a haven for old, sick or needy elephants in a setting of green pastures, old-growth forests, spring-fed ponds and a heated barn for cold winter nights; and to provide education about the crisis facing these social, complex, and exceedingly intelligent animals. The Elephant Sanctuary does provide the public with a select number of ways to observe, learn and support The Elephant Sanctuary both on and off property without restricting the movements of our elephants or intruding on their sanctuary.

It would seem that The Elephant Sanctuary knows a thing or two that Woodland Park Zoo doesn’t about educating the public on animal welfare and conservation issues without putting their elephants on display, all while still providing them the best possible care in a space that is 2,700 times bigger than the Zoo’s.

Over the three Task Force meetings to date that the public has been allowed to attend it’s been both subtly and overtly reinforced that the Zoo is running the show; that any conclusions the Task Force reaches will be taken only as recommendations and little more and that there is little that can be done to dissuade the Zoo from keeping its elephant exhibit. That has led many to conclude that the Task Force is nothing more than a public relations showpiece whose purpose is to rubberstamp the Zoo’s position. Wishing to address that dynamic, Co-Chair Jay Manning said at the beginning of the night’s meeting that “it’s unfortunate that some in the audience have concluded otherwise.” If Manning were only to review what he’s said across the past three meetings he might better understand why many feel this way. At each meeting Manning himself has said more than once that he has yet to read the documents submitted by both sides of the debate to the Task Force and available on its website. At one point during the meeting he said that “none of [the panel] are experts” – a position he’s reiterated numerous times over the past few months.

At the same time, there seems to be some level of coordination and collusion between the Zoo and the Task Force, notwithstanding the fact that one-third of the panel sits on The Zoo’s Board of Directors. During her testimony, Deborah Jensen talked about which Zoo- and AZA-affiliated people would be speaking at upcoming meetings. Those individuals and organizations advocating for the WPZ-3 to be released into a sanctuary have, at best and with one exception, been given no more than three days’ notice before a given meeting to prepare their remarks. That one exception was Lisa Kane, whose excellent An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants is well worth the read, and who declined to appear at this meeting due in part to some of the restrictions the Task Force put on her and because some of the requests she made of them went unfulfilled. Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants Co-Founder Alyne Fortgang was also invited to speak but similarly declined as she, like others not firmly sided with the Zoo, was only given a few days notice ahead of the meeting to prepare.

Three days to prepare a presentation versus having weeks in advance while also knowing what specifically is on future agendas and who in particular is speaking. Four of the panel’s fifteen members currently serving on the Zoo’s Board of Directors with a fifth its former chair and director emeritus, while the rest having no specific expertise in elephant behavior or welfare. One of its co-chairs still repeatedly saying that, halfway through the panel’s tenure, he has yet to begin reading the documentation that’s been submitted for the Task Force to review. It is unfortunate that some “have concluded otherwise” about the Task Force, but it’s the right conclusion to draw. In fact, it’s the only conclusion one can draw. Co-Chair Manning, and all the Task Force, would do well to understand why so many feel that this is nothing more than a rubberstamping exercise and that they are nothing more than a task farce.

To his credit, and so he doesn’t think it went unnoticed, Manning did stun several in the audience by asking Oakland Zoo’s Joel Parrott an informed question about elephant stereotypy – which is the repetitive body, head, and trunk swaying brought on by being in a small, limited environment and the stress it brings, and a condition that is found only in captive elephants. At the previous Task Force meeting, panel member Bryce Seidl said that that behavior was the result of the elephants “anticipating feeding.” “Sort of like we do when it’s getting close to lunch time.” Thankfully, Parrott didn’t feel the same, describing in detail that such behavior comes from elephants who have too little in their environment to encourage and engage them, and too small of a space to roam and explore, among other psychological and physical stresses. Parrott did say that the stereotypic behavior he’d seen in elephants did dissipate over time when those elephants were given ample space to roam and plenty of diverse behavioral enrichment to occupy both their minds and bodies with; something that, again, is difficult to achieve in the tiny confines of Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit.

It’s also important to note that divisions seem to be forming in the ranks of the Task Force. At different times during the meeting Annette Laico, Lyn Tangen, Gene Duvernoy, and Jeannie Nordstrom all raised concerns about both the process and the end result of the panel’s work, and all should be roundly commended for doing so. Laico asked, “I wonder where we might be able to find that other perspective to our discussion?” after raising questions about the effectiveness of needing captive animals to encourage conservation. “I don’t see what the end result will be and that concerns me,” said Nordstrom a little later on, following that comment up by saying that the panel should do what’s in the best interests of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai and keep them in mind and heart at all times when working their way through discussions.

That comment received a warm round of applause from the audience, but it was short lived. Bruce Seidl: “We’re an advisory group to the Zoo [and should] not substitute our viewpoints to make a decision.” Jeff Leppo: “[The Task Force] is not about making the ultimate recommendation.” Co-Chair Jan Hendrickson: “We are not a decision making body.”

I wonder if after being shot down so quickly Nordstrom, along with her fellow confederates on the panel, has begun to see the figurative bars that the Zoo has enclosed around her and the Task Force – similar to the literal ones Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai have spent decades behind. Room to move, but not too much. Paraded around to show off how much the Zoo cares about their case, how much they want to make a difference, and how much difference they are making if the Zoo’s to be believed. But, really, nothing more than a public relations stunt when examined with any scrutiny. One panel, fifteen members. One acre, three aging elephants. Both owned and run by the Zoo as a means to prove to the world that this is the way to conserve a species, that this is how the elephants will be saved, that there is no other way.

Because to save them we must enslave them.

Scroll To Top