Woodland Park Zoo Announces Elephant Exhibit Expansion Because “Conservation”

On March 28th, Woodland Park Zoo finally announced its long anticipated “strategic vision” for the zoo’s aging elephant exhibit. The five-year plan, based in part on feedback the zoo received from the hand-picked task force it convened last year on the heels of growing public pressure from a series The Seattle Times published on elephants in captivity, would see the zoo transfer its one female African elephant, Watoto, to another facility and bring in a third and possibly fourth Asian elephant to complement their remaining two Asian elephants, Bamboo and Chai, presumably in the hopes of restarting their elephant breeding program. The zoo would also commit between $1.5 to $3 million “to strengthen the Asian elephant program at the zoo, as well as play a key role in multiple elephant conservation arenas.”

While the details of the announcement were unsurprising, the news was still unwelcome by those who’ve been petitioning the zoo and the City of Seattle to close its elephant exhibit and retire the elephants in it to a sanctuary, and it goes against a growing body of evidence that says the earth’s largest terrestrial mammal – extremely intelligent, shown to be self-aware, and who by nature would live out their normal lives in tightly bonded matriarchal herds – fare poorly in confinement. Woodland Park Zoo’s decision to expand its elephant exhibit also contradicts a growing trend among other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Twenty-seven other zoos have already shuttered their elephant exhibits, or have plans to do so.

While the particulars of how the zoo will actually implement its five-year plan weren’t presented in the release, the zoo still maintains that the purpose of its elephant exhibit is to inspire conservation and that it will further do so by investing in on-the-ground elephant conservation work, claiming the zoo will “play a key role in multiple elephant conservation arenas.” As their Task Force revealed in its final report (PDF), over a fifteen year period from 1998-2012 Woodland Park Zoo’s financial contributions towards both Asian and African elephant conservation totaled $267,805 – which comes out to a meager $17,853.66 per year.

During its Task Force hearings, both Woodland Park Zoo and AZA officials were quick to call out time and again the brutal reality of African elephants being poached for their ivory. “One every fifteen minutes!” they kept repeating; an all-too-true and horribly alarming statistic. And while Asian elephants do face poaching issues, that species’ biggest threat in terms of safety and survival is their treatment as an abused and beaten captive work force – whether in the logging trade, or for the increasingly more lucrative tourism trade. That Woodland Park Zoo would use the plight of Asian elephants to justify creating and keeping its own captive and forcibly chosen “herd” in confines that have been shown to be deleterious to the animals’ physical and mental well-being, while dozens of their AZA peers are instead closing their exhibits after concluding that elephants do not fare well in captivity, highlights both the zoo’s remarkable arrogance and their ignorance to the plight of elephants both at home and abroad.

Some of that $1.5 to $3 million will go towards upgrading the zoo’s current exhibit space. Presently, the zoo’s elephant barn cannot adequately house their current occupants even though Watoto, Bamboo, and Chai are forced to spend eighteen hours a day in the barn for approximately half the year during Seattle’s inclement winter months. It’s unclear what changes will be made in order to accommodate the four proposed elephants, as well as any future calves if a breeding program goes forward. The total elephant exhibit space, including both the barn and outdoor area, is approximately one acre in size and is a space wholly inappropriate for an animal that walks dozens of miles daily in the wild. In last August’s Task Force meeting, Zoo CEO Deborah Jenson was asked to explain why a portion of the exhibit space (PDF – see page 8) had been marked off, to which she replied that it was for a potential though unapproved rhino exhibit. As Woodland Park Zoo is bounded on all sides by a densely populated urban environment – including a highway on its eastern border that runs directly alongside the elephant exhibit, and a busy arterial on its west – and that the zoo has limited space within its boundaries to expand the exhibit, it is again unclear how they will achieve making “significant improvements to the Elephant Forest exhibit and facilities.” In the zoo’s initial press release, as well as its subsequent “Elephant Futures Vision” document (PDF), any mention of expanding its current exhibit space is couched in vague language lacking detail, specifics, or cost.

Unless Woodland Park Zoo closes other exhibits on its property, there is simply no space available on-site to enlarge the current elephant exhibit, and certainly no available space large enough to provide for a growing herd. In contrast, according to a joint press release issued by In Defense of Animals and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants in response to the announcement by Woodland Park Zoo on Friday: “The San Diego Zoo and LA Zoo each spent more than $42 million dollars to improve their elephant exhibits.”

$1.5 to $3 million dollars over five years to improve its current exhibit, bring in new elephants, and contribute to worldwide elephant conservation, versus $42 million spent by other zoos just to improve those zoos’ exhibits. Like everything else Woodland Park Zoo has claimed over the past year, their commitment and contribution seems like a lot until one actually does the math.

A survey commissioned last fall by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants showed that:

  • 97% of Seattleites learned about poaching from varied sources – not from Woodland Park Zoo.
  • 66% of Seattleites believe that children can learn about conservation via an exhibit that does not include live elephants.
  • 66% of Seattleites believe the zoo should stop breeding Chai.
  • 62% of Seattleites support retiring Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai to a sanctuary.

According to an article in The Seattle Times responding to the zoo’s press release, of Woodland Park Zoo’s annual $30 million budget “about a third of the money … comes from the city of Seattle.” Narrowing in on that figure, Queen Anne & Magnolia News reports that in 2012 the zoo received $6.4 million from the City of Seattle and an additional $3.9 million from a King County property tax levy. This means that on a yearly basis over $10 million in tax payer funding goes directly to supporting Woodland Park Zoo’s outdated and medieval thinking with regards to the animals in its care and the animal conservation work they claim to support and participate in. Even if you don’t visit the zoo, or otherwise directly add to their coffers through attending zoo-anchored events like Zoo Tunes, your tax money still indirectly supports and helps legitimize the keeping and mistreatment of captive megafauna, and it will be your tax money that helps fund the zoo’s effort to bring in more elephants to a space and a place where the purpose is to put them on display for the public’s amusement while erroneously and conceitedly claiming that it’s being done in the name of “conservation.”

Consider that for a moment, and then please take the time to write the Seattle City Council and Mayor, politely letting them know that you don’t agree with publicly funding a private institution that is out of touch with the values and concerns of the city, or the values of concerned people anywhere. It is time for Woodland Park Zoo, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and any other similar institutions to come out of the Dark Ages and join the rest of us in recognizing that elephants do not belong in zoos, that elephants in zoos do not add to the cause of conservation nor are elephant exhibits an act of conservation, and that the zoo and the AZA are not fooling anyone by claiming otherwise.

It is up to each of us to be a voice for these animals and to hold both the zoo and the city accountable for their actions, or their inaction.

Edited to credit the survey mentioned directly to FoWPZE, and not both FoWPZE and IDA. Further edited to correct the zoo’s budget figure put forward by The Seattle Times to identify the amount of tax dollars received by the zoo from both the City of Seattle and King County.

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