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IF the problem hadn’t already been obvious, the mysterious and tragic death of Watoto at the Woodland Park Zoo underscores the fact that it is time for Seattle to get out of the elephant business, once and for all.

When zookeepers reported for work Friday morning, they discovered the 45-year-old African elephant lying in her yard, unable to raise herself to an upright position. They tried to raise her with cloth straps and heavy-lifting equipment but failed, and her condition quickly deteriorated, raising the possibility of internal injuries.

“An elephant who is down and cannot get up has a finite amount of time,” Dr. Darin Collins explained at a Friday news conference. Ultimately, euthanasia was the best option.

While the immediate cause of Watoto’s collapse will not be known until a medical examination is complete, it is hard to escape the sense that this was a preventable and premature death, and one for which the community bears a collective responsibility. Growing evidence suggests that keeping the world’s largest land mammals in confined spaces, in inappropriate climates, is harmful to their health. In the wild an elephant might live 20 years longer.

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Activists for years have urged that the zoo join others that closed their elephant exhibits and sent their elephants to sanctuaries. Watoto was due to be transferred to another zoo, so that Woodland Park might acquire one or two more Asian elephants to create a single-species herd. And right in the middle of the debate, the worst that might happen — happened.

Zoo president and CEO Deborah Jensen says she believes the exhibition of elephants serves a noble purpose, reminding the public of the species’ plight, perhaps playing a role in its preservation. But ultimately the zoo is the city’s responsibility, and Mayor Ed Murray was correct last Friday when he said the death “should reopen a dialogue in this city about the proper habitat for elephants.”

Should the zoo send its elephants to a sanctuary? Take our poll at

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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