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Woodland Park Zoo: The 3 Elephants in the Room

November 6th, 2013 by Nicole Meyer

Woodland Park Zoo: The 3 Elephants in the Room
New Survey Shows Zoo Lacks Public Support

If you’ve read about the controversy plaguing the zoo industry involving the housing of elephants in inadequate conditions, you know all about Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Facing ongoing criticism, and following a scathing Seattle Times investigative report, the zoo convened what it called an “Elephant Task Force” this spring. The Task Force was charged with reviewing the zoo’s elephant program and the welfare of Bamboo, Chai, and Watoto, yet it was clear to IDA from the start that the zoo rigged the Task Force to ensure an outcome that supported the zoo’s best interests, not the best interests of these three individual elephants.

The Task Force just wrapped up six months of review by producing a 24-page report with the majority recommendation that the elephants stay at the zoo, and that the zoo continue to breed the beleaguered elephant, Chai. In a joint cover letter to the zoo’s chair, members say they learned that elephants are “large,” that an elephant’s trunk “is amazing,” and that elephants are “remarkably intelligent.” Needless to say, not one panel member had any expertise in elephant welfare or conservation when they joined, and it’s safe to say they still have only a rudimentary understanding of this complex species. It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad, how the Woodland Park Zoo is purportedly relying on this Task Force to drive its decisions on the very futures of Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai.

The Task Force, which included four current and one former zoo board member, also claims to have listened to different perspectives on the debate of housing elephants in zoos. There’s not enough room here to adequately address the inaccuracy of this preposterous claim. Apparently, the Task Force feels that listening to “different perspectives” means ignoring requests to consult with any one of more than a dozen experts outside of those chosen by the zoo and the public relations firm paid to manipulate an expected outcome from the Task Force. IDA does appreciate and applaud the few members who were brave enough to come forward with a minority view. You can read the Task Force report here.

While the Woodland Park Zoo is clearly quite pleased with itself for holding court over, and diverting attention with, such a Task Force (and I’m sure all 14 members are relieved to be done with the debacle in time for the holidays) a new survey reveals that the zoo is woefully out of touch with the values of the Seattle community and what Seattleites want for the elephants. Commissioned by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, the survey shows that the zoo lacks the one thing it desperately needs in order to continue to keep elephants at the zoo: public support. You can read the full survey here. Key findings are:

• 62% of Seattle residents support retiring the elephants to a sanctuary
• Less than 10% support keeping the elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo
• 97% of Seattle residents learned about the poaching of elephants for ivory from varied sources – but not from the Woodland Park Zoo
• 66% of Seattle residents believe children can learn about elephants and their conservation through exhibits that do not include live elephants
• 66% of Seattle residents believe that the Woodland Park Zoo should stop breeding Chai

While the Woodland Park Zoo uses education and conservation as the main justifications for keeping elephants, survey findings clearly make it highly questionable whether the zoo has any notable effect on education. As for conservation, it’s highly dubious that the zoo is making as great an effort as it claims. Follow the numbers: According to the zoo’s own records, over the last 14 years, the Woodland Park Zoo spent just over 265-thousand dollars on elephant conservation, which is less than 20,000 a year. More disturbing, the zoo is wasting money that could have been used on conservation, by spending about 70-thousand a year defending its elephant program. This means the zoo is spending three times as much to save its reputation as it’s spending on saving wild elephants.

The media is also providing increasingly critical and objective coverage of the controversy surrounding the Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program. Read coverage at the following links:

What does the future hold for Seattle’s zoo elephants? (KING5 News, November 4, 2013)

The elephants in the room: Woodland Park’s see-no-evil campaign (Crosscut, October 15, 2013)

Living on shaky ground, swimming against the tide (The Seattle Times, October 27, 2013)

Report on Woodland Park Zoo elephants released (KING5 News, October 22, 2013)

So what happens next? The Woodland Park Zoo board will apparently need a few months to read the 24-page Task Force report to determine how to keep Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai in conditions that will silence growing criticism. That seems an impossible task, so stay tuned for the zoo’s next step.

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