Woodland Park Zoo to Elephants: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss


From a governance standpoint this was a methodical process. It was a lengthy process. We are so excited about the fact that we can achieve what the public and our professionals told us needed to happen.

-Laurie Stewart, Woodland Park Zoo Board Chair

Welcome to your new home, ladies

Welcome to your new home, ladies. (Photo Oklahoma City Zoo.)

On the afternoon of Friday, February 27th, Woodland Park Zoo CEO Deborah Jensen stepped up to the podium at an assembled press conference to announce that the zoo’s remaining two elephants, Bamboo (48) and Chai (36), both female Asian elephants, had finally been found a new “home.” At the same time, 2,000 miles away at the Oklahoma City Zoo, where Bamboo and Chai will be headed in a month’s time, it was 18 degrees Fahrenheit with snow falling, and the zoo was announcing it would be closing early on account of the frigid weather. (OCZ would remain closed for the weekend because of cold and snow).

Thus ended a frantic six-month period since the death of the Woodland Park Zoo’s lone African elephant, Watoto (45), and a complete reversal from the zoo’s ambitious-if-not-arrogant intention to expand their elephant herd, to their decision to shutter the exhibit entirely and send Bamboo and Chai packing to what undoubtedly is an even worse environment.

Welcome to your new home, ladies.

Joining Jensen at the press conference were Oklahoma City Zoo Curator of Animals, Laura Bottaro; Woodland Park Zoo Board of Directors Chairwoman, Laurie Stewart; and several WPZ animal staff. Helped by Bottaro, Jensen spent a considerable portion of her time defending the zoo’s decision while not-so-subtly poking a finger in the eye of those advocating that the elephants be sent to one of two recognized elephant sanctuaries in the country: The Performing Animal Welfare Society in California or The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Neither one, claimed Jensen falsely and repeatedly, has “a social herd our animals can integrate with.”

Both Jensen and Bottaro claimed that no place was better capable of taking care of the elephants than a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, citing cases of tuberculosis at both PAWS and TES. What neither Jensen nor Bottaro mentioned, however, was that the elephants in the care of both sanctuaries came directly from AZA-accredited zoos and other associated entities, and it was at those facilities and not the sanctuaries that the tuberculosis problem in captive elephants arose. And while Jensen claimed that Woodland Park Zoo paid on-site visits with numerous zoos in finding a new location for Bamboo and Chai, the Zoo apparently never gave the same due diligence to either of the sanctuaries. It had been apparent for some time that Woodland Park Zoo would never seriously consider any place other than another AZA facility, regardless what facts or public and legal pressure was brought to bear in favor of sanctuary.

What was also missing from Jensen’s comments is that both Bamboo and Chai have been exposed to EEHV, a disease most likely contracted by Chai when she was sent from WPZ to Dickerson Park Zoo for breeding purposes, and a disease that ended up killing Hansa, the calf Chai gave birth to after returning to Seattle from Dickerson. Woodland Park Zoo was aware beforehand of the exposure danger, but decided the (monetary) benefits of having a baby elephant calf in Seattle outweighed any risked posed to Chai or any other elephant involved. The Seattle Times reported extensively on this and other issues surrounding elephants in captivity and the dubious purpose they serve in their award-wining series, Glamour Beasts: The Dark Side of Elephant Captivity.

Even a letter sent to Woodland Park Zoo signed by Seattle’s mayor and several councilmembers imploring that the elephants be sent to sanctuary was scoffed at by zoo officials. Unless the city brings strong legal pressure against the zoo, sometime between late March and the end of April, possibly even sooner, Bamboo and Chai appear destined to join OCZ’s four female Asian elephants (ranging in age from 2 months to 20 years) and one male elephant (47), sharing approximately four acres (which is less space per elephant than the miserable confines they have at WPZ) in a climate that is substantially colder in winter and hotter in summer than the already-unnatural-to-their-species conditions they’ve experienced in Seattle in the decades since they were stolen from the wilds of Asia.

“We have a very happy story and we feel very excited for Chai and Bamboo,” said Jensen.

While her zoo was being closed because of below-freezing temperatures and snow back in Oklahoma City, Bottaro downplayed its inclimate conditions, saying that on average it’s not considerably different than the weather Seattle experiences. Bottaro also happily reported that the heated barn (admittedly an improvement to the prison-like conditions Bamboo and Chai have had to suffer in the barn at Seattle’s elephant exhibit) could “easily fit twelve” elephants. Bottaro also downplayed their exhibit’s outdoor pavilion, where elephants are expected daily to perform “natural elephant behaviors” in front of a crowd of up to 400. “I don’t call it a ‘performance,'” Bottaro said. “I call it a ‘behavioral demonstration.'”

When asked by a reporter if it was Oklahoma City Zoo’s intention to use Chai for breeding purposes, since there is a bull elephant at OCZ, Woodland Park Zoo veterinarian Darin Collins said, “We wouldn’t rule that out as a possibility, but that’s not the reason for the move.” (The Seattle Times reported in Glamour Beasts that Chai was unsuccessfully inseminated over 100 times using a restraining device zoo keepers nicknamed “the iron maiden.”)

Shipped to a place that’s more miserable in both summer and winter, with less acreage per elephant than the tiny amount they’ve been allotted at Woodland Park Zoo, while possibly re-enlisted into a breeding program. “A very happy story” indeed.

One of the less noticeable but more surprising comments came from WPZ Board Chair Laurie Stewart, who at one point said: “From a governance standpoint this was a methodical process. It was a lengthy process. We are so excited about the fact that we can achieve what the public and our professionals told us needed to happen.”

Which is exactly the opposite of what the public, and even the Zoo’s own hand-picked task force, told them should happen. In a 2013 survey commissioned by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, sixty-two percent of registered voters in Seattle who were polled supported retiring the Zoo’s then-three elephants to a sanctuary outside of AZA control. A more recent petition by PETA shows almost 140,000 people calling for Woodland Park Zoo to retire Bamboo and Chai to sanctuary, and an inside source reports that after filtering out duplicate or erroneous entries the petition still stands strong at 85,000 voices calling for sanctuary and not another zoo.

A minority of the Zoo’s own Task Force also recommended similar action in the panel’s final report, while the majority viewpoint was to keep the elephants at WPZ and implement a five-year plan that would expand the herd.

Even though those two positions (sanctuary versus expanding the zoo’s own exhibit) are polar opposites from each other, both are still miles away from being onboard with what WPZ has chosen to do and what they claim “the public and our professionals told us needed to happen.”

But things changed with the death of Watoto. Under increasing public pressure and growing government scrutiny the zoo could see the writing on the wall and chose to do an about-face from its own hand-crafted recommendations and punt their elephant problem entirely. A growing chorus of dissent and a dead elephant was keeping the zoo in the spotlight for reasons they didn’t prefer. Whether they’ll succeed in seeing the elephants off to OCZ or elsewhere remains to be seen, however.

Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW recently reported that Seattle City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw asked city attorneys to look into filing civil and criminal charges against Woodland Park Zoo as a result of Watoto’s death, and that the city is considering further legal action under increased public pressure. The Elephant Justice Project, started by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants co-founder Alyne Fortgang, says that EJP will be moving forward with a lawsuit announced some weeks before the Zoo’s press conference, and is now also looking into reported USDA violations at Oklahoma City Zoo unrelated to the transfer of Bamboo and Chai. “It’s unconscionable,” says Fortgang, regarding WPZ’s decision to relocate Bamboo and Chai to another zoo and not sanctuary. “There are no words and we hope that the mayor and city council will step up on behalf of the people and pass a resolution to send the elephants to sanctuary.”

Fortgang encourages supporters of sanctuary to make themselves be heard now more than ever. Information on how you can help and a statement from FoWPZE on the Zoo’s announcement can be found here.

An interesting wrinkle in Woodland Park Zoo’s announcement on Friday was Jensen stating that Bamboo and Chai’s transfer to Oklahoma City Zoo would be on a “long-term loan” basis, and that Woodland Park Zoo would retain legal ownership of the elephants. This very well might give the City of Seattle and the Elephant Justice Project the legal footing necessary to ensure Bamboo and Chai one day end up in sanctuary, even if they don’t end up there before being sent to OCZ.

WPZ officials reported that both Bamboo and Chai are currently being acclimated to custom-built travel trailers in anticipation of the move. Woodland Park Zoo seems determined more than ever to do everything it can to get the elephants out the door as quickly as possible in the face of continued pressure and before any more die on their watch because of their actions (or inaction). Supporters for sanctuary will tell you, however, that the issue of Bamboo and Chai’s well-being is far from being settled, regardless what zoo they might be forced to call “home.”

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