Open Letter Regarding July 2013 Meeting of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force

Much of what we’ve talked about this evening, and much of what we’ve talked about at previous meetings, is really from the Zoo’s perspective. I would think that one of the most powerful ways to further [the Zoo’s mission statement regarding] education is by not losing sight of the fact that we are also talking about particular animals at the Zoo currently in an exhibit that is arguably inadequate.

-Annette Laico (Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force Member).

To: Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force.
Cc: Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle City Mayor Mike McGinn, Seattle City Council.

I’d first like to offer Task Force member Annette Laico a warm and sincere thank you for again reminding all in attendance at the most recent public Task Force meeting that the proceedings should not lose sight that its purpose, first and foremost, must be about the health and welfare of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai, and “the true reality of [those] three individuals,” as Laico so eloquently put it; regardless how often others on the panel, along with Woodland Park Zoo, try to steer the conversation away from that fact.

“We still have a situation that is less than ideal for three particular elephants, and potentially others into the future,” said Laico. “We can’t lost sight of that.”

The City, the Zoo, and the Task Force all need to be reminded that the reason for these meetings is not because of a need to discuss Woodland Park Zoo’s conservation and education mission statements, regardless what the Zoo has set forth as the Task Force’s purpose, but is instead the result of ongoing pressure from a concerned public seeking answers and remedies to the harmful care of the three elephants in the Zoo’s trust, and its woefully inadequate exhibit.

It’s a clever ploy on the Zoo’s part to attach its elephant exhibit to the plight of elephants in the wild (the latter a dire situation few disagree with) and something they’ve done at every opportunity. It would seem that, according to the Zoo, the only way to address the immediate need for elephant conservation is to create “empathy” with the public, which they believe is best accomplished by taking elephants out of their physical and familial environments and putting them on display in front of a paying public; notwithstanding their misguided belief that zoos might be the only means to save or otherwise restore wild elephant populations when all evidence points in the exact opposite direction.

Which brings me to my second point. During the question and answer section of Fred Koontz’s testimony (Vice President of Field Conservation at Woodland Park Zoo), panel member Gene Duvernoy made this statement: “Listening to your presentation, I was not sure I understood how these three individual elephants – or even keeping elephants as a species – helps with your elephant conservation work.” Suzanne Walsh followed with something similar: “If we didn’t have elephants at the zoo, would we still do conservation related to elephants?”

Dr. Koontz’s reply: “I really don’t know.”

Despite the fact that Woodland Park Zoo insists that the elephant poaching crisis is dire and elephants will be extinct in ten to fifteen years, and that the Zoo’s financial help is critical to saving this iconic species, it should be noted that, according to Dr. Koontz’s own testimony, the Zoo contributes less than three percent of its overall Field Conservation budget to elephant conservation programs.

Three percent – of one department’s budget.

Lisa Kane helps put these numbers in perspective in Appendix 5 of An Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants (“Brief Analysis of Zoo’s Claims to Elephant Conservation”): “On an annualized basis, the Zoo contributed approximately $20,000 to wild elephant conservation in 2011. At the same time, it reported spending $8 million on fundraising expenses to the Seattle Foundation. In other words, the Zoo spent $400 on itself for every $1 it spent to save elephants in the wild.”

As Dr. Koontz was so found of saying during his testimony, “Let me repeat that.” In 2011 Woodland Park Zoo spent $400 on itself for every $1 it spent supporting wild elephant conservation programs.

It’s difficult to find credibility in the impassioned pleas of Dr. Koontz and other Zoo officials who’ve testified that the fate of elephants in the wild is tied directly to the Zoo creating “empathy” through its own elephant exhibit when only a paltry three percent of its Field Conservation budget goes towards elephant conservation, and that the Zoo’s participation in any elephant conservation appears to be predicated on having and keeping an exhibit that Task Force member Laico referred to as “arguably inadequate.” If the crisis is indeed so dire (which, again, no one is arguing that it isn’t) shouldn’t the Zoo be actively participating in related elephant conservation work regardless whether or not they have an elephant exhibit? Is the Zoo really so misguided in thinking that their elephant exhibit will be the difference maker in protecting and saving wild elephants, or do they think the public is so easily conned? And does the Zoo feel that only contributing three percent of one department’s annual budget is the appropriate amount to spend on a species whose extinction they seem so overwhelmingly concerned with?

Here is Annette Laico’s full quote from the meeting on the matter: “Much of what we’ve talked about this evening, and much of what we’ve talked about at previous meetings, is really from the Zoo’s perspective. I would think that one of the most powerful ways to further [the Zoo’s mission statement regarding] education is by not losing sight of the fact that we are also talking about particular animals at the Zoo currently in an exhibit that is arguably inadequate.”

Which leads me to my third point. Only one of the four Task Force meetings to date has included testimony given by a person or organization advocating for Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai to be released into sanctuary (In Defense of Animals’ Nicole Meyer at the April 18th meeting). Over the last fourteen hours of public meetings the Task Force has held to date, only once have they chosen to hear from someone not associated with either Woodland Park Zoo or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Further, it was announced at the July meeting that the Task Force will not be hearing any testimony during its final two meetings except for (conveniently) a follow-up presentation by Woodland Park Zoo’s CEO, Deborah Jensen.

That will be twenty-two hours in total of public meetings with only thirty minutes offered to those advocating a position different from the Zoo’s. Does the Task Force feel that this is an “objective and transparent review” and a judicious and equitable approach in ascertaining the health and welfare of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai, and the ability or lack thereof of Woodland Park Zoo to best meet their physical, mental, and social well-being?

Lastly, I couldn’t help but notice that several Task Force members arrived late to this past meeting, and upon reflection I realized that not a single meeting that’s been open to the public has seen all fifteen members of the panel seated together to hear and discuss testimony. At the close of the July 22nd meeting only seven of the Task Force’s fifteen panel members remained for the final hour of discussion.

Does the Task Force feel that not having even a majority of its panelists present at meetings is the best approach to answering the difficult questions that have been put before them, questions that both the public and City of Seattle are carefully watching and waiting for answers on? Does the Task Force feel that not having all, much less a majority, of its members present at meetings is an appropriate use of the trust they’ve been given in advising the best course of action for the health and welfare of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai? Does the Task Force feel that they simply don’t have to, as individuals or as a committee, focus their full attention on the duties they’ve agreed to fulfill? Or does the Task Force think that, like so many others have come to believe, the outcome of these hearings has already been pre-determined and that their participation, investigation, and recommendations aren’t needed other than to rubberstamp Woodland Park Zoo’s position, and as such their full attendance at each meeting isn’t necessary?

Thank you for your time. And thank you again to Annette Laico, Gene Duvernoy, and Suzanne Walsh – and to Jeannie Nordstrom at the June meeting – for speaking directly to the needs of Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai, and not just to the needs of the Zoo.

Regards,
CH Young
Seattle, WA

This topic can be tracked at the following link:
https://kimpluscraig.com/elephanttaskforce

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