May 8th, 2013 by Nicole Meyer
In Defense of Animals (IDA) attended the first meeting of the Woodland Park Zoo’s “Elephant Task Force” on April 18th. Based on observations of the panel over the course of more than three hours, IDA fears that our first impression was accurate: this “Force” is a farce orchestrated by the zoo.
Contrary to the charge to “conduct a data-driven, objective review of the zoo’s elephant program, exhibit and current elephant welfare,” the zoo contrived a scenario to deflect criticism and shore up eroding public support for its elephant program. The zoo appears to have carefully selected a panel to ensure one outcome: protecting the interests of the Woodland Park Zoo, rather than the best interests of Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai.
The zoo convened a panel of 15 people, but in a clear conflict of interest, a third of the panel is closely associated with the zoo. Three panel members are current zoo board members, one is a former zoo board member, and one is a founding member of a zoo committee. Two of the panel’s zoo board members—Bryan Slinker and Rob Liddell—have already made their views known in an op-ed published last year in The Seattle Times criticizing members of the public who questioned the zoo’s practices and care of the elephants.
The remaining panel members include several attorneys, a public affairs officer, a museum employee, a YWCA board member, and a University of Washington director. None of the panel members have any recognized expertise in captive or wild elephant issues and welfare, or on the subject of public education about elephants and related conservation. In introducing themselves, numerous panel members noted they were “brand new to the issue.”
To their credit, it is apparent that select members of the task force are well-meaning, intelligent, and critical thinkers committed to serving to the best of their abilities. Experts spend decades, even entire lifetimes, studying elephants. Yet, this panel is expected to overcome a massive learning curve in a matter of months and provide recommendations to the zoo board that will, in all likelihood, seal the fate of Bamboo, Chai, and Watoto.
Of potentially greater concern is a sub-task force charged with reviewing the health and care of the elephants and the zoo’s elephant breeding program. In a convenient and a strategic move, the zoo gave Slinker the job of convening five “outside scientific and medical experts.” And what a great job Slinker did—for the zoo. The experts may work outside of the Woodland Park Zoo, but they are all zoo-industry insiders. Two are even advisors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Elephant Taxon Advisory Group & the Species Survival Plan, which is tasked with heading up breeding plans for zoo elephants. The AZA is a trade-industry group heralded by zoos, but highly criticized for its weak standards. It was with AZA complicity that the Woodland Park Zoo has attempted unsuccessfully to artificially inseminate Chai more than 112 times.
IDA sincerely hopes that this task force—at least the 10 members who are not directly affiliated with the Woodland Park Zoo—take their appointments very seriously and do their homework. The very lives of Bamboo, Chai, and Watoto may depend on it.