IN recent years, information has been flowing in from long-term studies of elephants in the wild. They reveal a picture of an animal that is far different from what we learned about them in zoos and circuses.
They have extraordinarily complex social lives, with immensely strong social bonds. Females, for example, are never parted from their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, except by death, or by human cause.
While most zoo animals live longer than their wild counterparts, zoo elephants do not. Woodland Park Zoo has emerged as one of the best zoos in the nation, but as far as elephants are concerned, it remains like the bad old days.
We now know that elephants are naturally vigorous animals, active for about 20 hours of the day, constantly interacting with their environment and with members of their social groups. We know, too, that they are remarkably perceptive and intelligent beings, and have emotionally rich lives.
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With our new knowledge it is now clear that zoos cannot satisfactorily meet elephants’ complex needs except at the most rudimentary levels.
At Woodland Park Zoo elephants suffer physical, social, psychological and emotional deprivation. Moved between zoos like commodities between warehouses, they have been beaten and winched into painful immobility for hours to make them obedient to commands and are locked in solitary stalls for about 18 hours every day.
The zoo publicly boasts of providing “excellent quality of life” for their elephants, citing such examples as “daily foot care” as if this was evidence of pampering. In truth it’s just essential maintenance to prevent further damage from problems caused by bad conditions.
They also claim to provide “freedom of choice,” then in small print add, “to be indoors or out.” Even this, the elephant’s only option, is available only if temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and then only if keepers allow it. They have no freedom of choice for anything important, day or night.
Most tellingly, the zoo claims the elephants have an “interesting space” for “exercise and exploration.” Yet the elephants’ miserly one-acre space is devoid of anything to explore. It contains nothing of interest to them.
The elephants know every square inch of its emptiness, where nothing fundamentally changes from one day or one year to another. To the casual eye the exhibit may appear to be green and natural, but all that surrounding greenery is out of touch, and out of their lives.
Spend even 15 minutes watching the elephants — mostly immobile or swaying stereotypically in repetitious actions that reveal trauma, distress and altered emotional states, rarely interacting with each other — and the falsity of the zoo’s claims that all is well are evident.
Seattle City Council member Sally Bagshaw requested the zoo form a committee of experts to report on possible best options for the elephants. The zoo board has appointed Jan Hendrickson and Jay Manning as co-chairs and the two are expected to name committee members shortly.
Similar committees formed in other zoos where troubled elephants were under scrutiny have routinely included so-called experts who have always said what the zoos wanted them to say. Seattleites must be cautious the this does not happen here.
Thankfully, articles and editorials in The Seattle Times late last year brought a new focus on the plight of the zoo’s elephants. For the first time there is a slim chance for a public debate about their future.
After such a debate in Toronto last November, against stubborn resistance from the Toronto Zoo and the American Zoo Association, the Toronto City Council voted to send their elephants to the PAWS Sanctuary in California.
The same result would surely emerge from any objective forum in Seattle. If that happens it will be thanks to the push from The Seattle Times and the lobbying of thousands and thousands of Seattleites to finally do what is best for the elephants. Not for the city, not for the zoo, but for the elephants.
David Hancocks was director of Woodland Park Zoo from 1976 to 1984.