Ending the Elephant Program at Woodland Park Zoo

Today the Woodland Park Zoo announced, with great sadness, that it would be phasing out its elephant exhibit and transferring its two Asian elephants, Chai and Bamboo, to another AZA-accredited facility. Their reasoning is clear yet nuanced. Let’s take a moment to walk through it.

zoo sign

It has been a tumultuous couple of years for the elephant program at the Woodland Park Zoo. It began in December of 2012 when the Seattle Times published a series of articles on the zoo’s three elephants (at that time), which can accurately be described as a “hit piece” since it is full of half-truths and distortions intended to present the zoo in the most negative light possible. Unfortunately, many people actually believe what they read in the newspaper, and there was a sizable local reaction. In response, a task force was assembled to review the elephants’ health and well-being as well as the zoo’s care for them.  In October of 2013, the task force issued its final report, concluding that the elephants were in overall good health (despite two of the three being well into their geriatric years) and that the zoo provides excellent care for them, but also recommending some changes to further improve things for them. One of the key recommendations was, recognizing that three is small for a healthy herd, the zoo should either “double down” and increase the herd size (along with appropriate enhancements to the exhibit facility) or make a plan to phase it out over time.

Underlying that recommendation is a key piece of information that needs to be declared, because it’s central to what’s going on now. There are many people — notably activists who wish to see all captive elephants moved to sanctuaries — that the most important thing for elephants’ well being is an abundance of space. This is usually justified by observations that elephants in the wild can walk long distances to obtain food and water. But just because they CAN do that in the wild, doesn’t mean they NEED to do that for their health. As with all animals (and humans, for that matter) being enclosed in too small a space can cause psychological and physical health issues, but there is no consensus view as to how much space elephants need. And the elephant task force, which included several well-respected veterinarians with expertise on elephants, found that the zoo’s elephants were in good health and not suffering the kind of effects one would expect from an elephant being kept in a space that is too small. They have varied terrain and enrichment activities over the course of the day that encourage them to walk and explore throughout their exhibit.

But more to the point, the best available science doesn’t say that space is the most important thing for elephants’ well being. Instead, it’s the social environment that the elephants live within. Elephants are very social animals and have complex relationships and interactions with other members of its herd. A healthy interaction with the rest of its herd is the most important factor in an elephant’s overall well being.

Last March, after weighing the recommendations of the elephant task force, the zoo decided to commit to expanding the elephant program and making the necessary enhancements to the exhibit to allow for that. As part of that plan, Watoto, its 45-year-old African elephant, would be transferred to another AZA-accredited facility; 47 year old Bamboo and 35 year old Chai, both female Asian elephants, would remain, and the zoo would work to bring in additional female elephants to further grow the herd (both immediately and with future offspring).

On August 25 of this year, Watoto suddenly became ill and unable to stand on her own. The vets and keepers tried for several hours to help her back up, but to no avail. Lying down for more than a short period of time causes severe physical issues for elephants, and it became clear through diagnostic tests that Watoto’s physical distress was increasing. Finally the staff made the heartbreaking decision to humanely euthanize her. It’s critical to point out that Watoto was 45, which is the median lifespan for elephants both in the wild and in captivity (factoring out poachers in the wild). Elephant activists like to say “elephants can live up to 70 in the wild!”  This is true, and elephants can also live up to 70 years in zoos as well; but this is the equivalent of saying “Humans can live up to 100!”  Yes, they can, and a few do, but they are the exception and the expected lifespan is far less. Watoto was in good general health but was definitely showing her age, and the necropsy performed after her death showed that she succumbed to expected complications from old age. She lived a good life, was well cared for, and was happy.

In the meantime, throughout the spring, summer and fall the staff at Woodland Park Zoo held discussions with the AZA’s elephant Taxon Advisory Group which oversees cooperative management and breeding of the elephant population in AZA-member facilities. They also directly contacted AZA-accredited facilities that house Asian elephants.

In North America, there are 34 institutions with Asian elephants. Of those, 10 have either one or two elephants and would likely take more if offered. This points to an ongoing issue: the captive population of Asian elephants is currently in decline due to an aging population (many of the females are beyond breeding age) and a low reproduction rate. There simply aren’t Asian elephants, especially breeding age females, within the North American captive population that are available to be added to the zoo’s herd, as any zoos that have them are desperate to hold on to them to sustain their own herds. In the end, the zoo came to the conclusion that it would be unable to add to its existing herd of two Asian elephants.

For the staff and leadership of the zoo, the conversation then become one about what would be best for Bamboo and Chai. Again, it’s important to emphasize that the best available science says that the most important thing for an elephant is to be well integrated into a herd in order to meet its social needs. Bamboo is 47, over the median lifespan for an elephant; while she is also in good general health and will likely live for several more years, there is no guarantee that she will, and the recent events with Watoto speak to that unfortunate truth. If the zoo’s herd remains just two, Bamboo and Chai, then when Bamboo eventually passes away Chai will be left alone — a terrible outcome for her. So after careful consideration, the zoo made the decision to do the right thing for both of them and prioritize transferring them together to another AZA-accredited facility sooner rather than later.

There’s lots of stuff in that decision, so let’s unpack it piece by piece.  First, they decided to move them together, sooner rather than later: Bamboo and Chai get along well, and transferring them together will help each of them with the transition to a new location and a new herd. Further, it will give Chai the chance to integrate into a larger herd so that when Bamboo eventually passes away she will still have the rest of the new herd for social interaction.

A bigger, more complicated issue is where to send them. The zoo has made the decision to send them to an AZA-accredited facility, and not to look at alternatives such as sanctuaries.  There are two reasons behind this.  The main reason is that the zoo is committed to its mission of teaching people about conservation, and the elephants are important ambassadors for the conservation issues in southeast Asia; at another AZA facility they will be able to continue their role in that mission through interaction with visitors. At a sanctuary, they wouldn’t be able to do that. The zoo is committed to ensuring that Bamboo and Chai continue to participate in educating people about conservation in a respectful and healthy manner, and they won’t send them to a facility where they will be unable to do that.

We should spend a moment on the topic of elephant sanctuaries. There are three of them in the United States: one in Florida, one in Tennessee, and one in California. Their main role is to “rescue” elephants from the entertainment industry or from other places (private or public) where they have been mistreated and are in need of physical and/or psychological healing. Sanctuaries are run by well-meaning people who work very hard and are truly trying to do something good for the animals they take in; I have great respect for what they do and for the important role that they play. But the elephants at the zoo are in good health, and are not in need of physical or psychological rehabilitation. Also, none of the three sanctuaries are accredited by the AZA, which means that they are only subject to the standard of care required by the USDA, and more importantly there is little oversight. AZA-accredited organizations need to meet a much higher, self-imposed standard and are subject to regular oversight and reviews. Now it may be that the sanctuaries are meeting that level, but no one is checking them on that.  Further, while sanctuaries offer huge amounts of space for elephants to roam (certainly not a bad thing),  it’s less clear what kind of social environment Bamboo and Chai would have if transferred to a sanctuary.

In fact, we can look at the reality on the ground, and it’s pretty bleak. Of the three US elephant sanctuaries, two are currently not accepting new elephants at this time. The third one has Asian elephants who have tested positive for exposure to tuberculosis, so if Bamboo and Chai were set there they would be kept separate from the rest of the Asian elephants. In other words, they would remain a herd of only two, and when Bamboo passes away, Chai will still be alone.  So while they would have more space, their social environment would be exactly the same as it currently is at the zoo. And social environment is more important than space.

It’s important to note that sanctuaries are not the “enemy” here, and they are not picking a fight with the Woodland Park Zoo. Again, they play an important role and are staffed by people who truly care about the animals and want to provide for them the best they can. The acrimony in this debate is being fueled by a small set of very vocal activists who believe that all the elephants in zoos in North America should be transferred to sanctuaries. That is a philosophical argument with plenty of room for disagreement, particularly when presented with real facts about the well-being of elephants in AZA-accredited zoos as well as the state of things in US elephant sanctuaries. I appreciate that the activists are well-intentioned, but they have a poor grasp of the facts, are reaching unfounded conclusions, and are backing up their convictions with a level of passion that doesn’t compensate for the shakiness of their facts.

The zoo expects to evaluate a number of potential new AZA-accredited homes for Bamboo and Chai, using six criteria:

1. The ability of the facility to take both of them and keep them together.
2. The facility’s philosophy, particularly towards conservation education.
3. The level of animal care provided.
4. The level of veterinary care provided, included preventative medicine.
5. The stability of the organization’s leadership.
6. The organization’s financial stability.

The zoo staff has already asked the AZA elephant TAG for a list of North American zoos willing to accept two Asian elephants together who are beyond breeding age, and once they receive that list will begin their evaluation process. Hopefully they will find a great home in the next few months and this spring Bamboo and Chai will have the opportunity to join a new, larger herd.

I have enormous respect for the staff and leadership at the Woodland Park Zoo. This was an incredibly difficult decision for them to reach, as Bamboo and Chai are treasured by both the zoo staff and volunteers and the larger Seattle community who visit with them often. We all will miss them when they are gone. But in the end they made a decision that prioritized the well-being of the elephants over all other factors. And that was the right thing for them to do.

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