Usually, zoos seek publicity for major events, such as the arrival of a new elephant. But late last month, an Asian elephant named Bamboo...
Usually, zoos seek publicity for major events, such as the arrival of a new elephant. But late last month, an Asian elephant named Bamboo was transported without fanfare from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma. It was a sad final chapter in a tragic story.
The history of elephants in zoos is full of mental and physical pain. Wild elephants, astonishingly intelligent, perceptive and complex beings, live in caring and secure extended families that stay intact for life. But zoo elephants have traditionally been lonely, shipped around indiscriminately, bored, cramped, chained and beaten.
In the wild they enjoy an incredibly positive and loving social environment. Different attitudes prevail in many zoos, where dominance and control are paramount, even for babies. Seattle’s baby elephant Hansa was struck with a metal barb-tipped steel weapon, the ankus, at least 11 times in one week in 2001.
Later, at 18 months, Hansa was beaten more severely for eating dirt. When this became public, the zoo’s deputy director, Bruce Bohmke, was quoted as saying the blows were “appropriate.” Elephant mothers would never reprimand a baby for eating dirt.
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Zoos claim dominance is both traditional and necessary. They also claim that wild elephants use strong discipline on their young. This is false. Dr. Joyce Poole, director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, has learned in 25-plus years of observing wild elephants that they do not use discipline on their young. She says, “I have no idea how this myth started. I have never seen (wild) calves disciplined. Protected, comforted, cooed over, reassured and rescued, yes, but punished, no.”
When I worked at Woodland Park Zoo, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Bamboo was a teenager but nonetheless cooperative, trustworthy, smart and playful. Her housing conditions were appalling: a drafty, leaky, uninsulated building, but we did all we could for her well-being. We abolished chaining the elephants through the night. We dedicated extra keeper time, introduced enrichment techniques to occupy the elephants mentally and physically, and even used the entire park as Bamboo’s playground.
I recall one summer afternoon when there was concern because Bamboo and her keeper had not been seen for some time. We found them lying in a sunny glade, down by Aurora Avenue North, each fast asleep, the keeper propped against her comfortable girth.
After I left the zoo, frustrated by the city’s failure to invest in better housing for the elephants, changes were made. Overnight chaining was reintroduced. Discipline became harsh. Strong control was substituted for a system that had relied upon cooperation and love.
Bamboo today is deeply changed from what she used to be. This gentle and docile elephant is now branded as dangerous and has been sent to a zoo that specializes in “difficult” elephants.
It does seem that Point Defiance Zoo has a better management program than Woodland Park’s, and I am confident they will give her good care. But there is a much better option.
Bamboo needs not just good care, but a place where she can heal. She has been offered the chance, at no cost, to live in The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. There, she would have vast spaces to explore (hundreds of acres instead of just one acre at Point Defiance — and, despite what zoo officials say, elephants do need lots of space), plus the company of not just two but many other broken and now mended and contented elephants.
The quality of life at the Tennessee sanctuary, the abundance of love the elephants receive, and the joy they experience are beyond anything I have seen at any zoo. It seems an obvious choice. But it would take a bit of courage: The American Zoo Association has threatened member zoos with expulsion for sending elephants to a sanctuary.
Seattle’s zoo still owns Bamboo, and thus is responsible for her. It should make a compassionate decision, and do only what is best for her. Give Bamboo the reward she deserves. Package her up in a bundle of love; smother her with affection for one final farewell. Then send her as soon as possible to a sanctuary filled with happiness.
David Hancocks was design coordinator and then director of Woodland Park Zoo from 1974 to 1984. He also served as director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson from 1989 to 1997, and was director of the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Australia, from 1998 to 2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.