MANY assertions have been made lately about the Woodland Park Zoo and its elephant program without consideration of some critical facts. A few extremists have gone so far as to ask the zoo to end its elephant program.
The zoo’s governing board, including members appointed by the Seattle mayor and City Council, offers the public a different viewpoint.
The Woodland Park Zoo’s mission is to save animals and their habitats through conservation and engaging experiences, inspiring people to learn, care and act. We have been caring for elephants in fulfillment of our mission since 1921. Our program has evolved over the decades as research and science have progressed.
To ensure we considered the latest, fact-based scientific data before making a decision about the future of our elephant program, the board launched a six-month, independent, public review. A citizen elephant task force and an expert review panel were appointed to analyze the health and welfare of our elephants, as well as our conservation and education efforts.
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Members of the task force included environmental experts, medical professionals and leaders from prominent organizations such as the University of Washington, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PAWS and others.
The task force spent hundreds of hours learning about elephants and interviewing global experts to find out how our program compares with other world-class zoos. Simultaneously, a panel of national experts in animal health and welfare spent weeks observing the zoo’s three elephants, reviewing their health records and interviewing the caretakers.
The conclusion of the experts: The zoo’s elephants are in good health and our staff provides excellent care. While some minor changes were suggested, the zoo’s elephant program received very high marks.
The task force considered these findings along with other information and overwhelmingly recommended that the zoo expand its elephant program and increase future investments in conservation and education.
After much discussion, the zoo board then unanimously approved expanding the program, and made an initial commitment of up to $3 million to improve the facility, increase the number of Asian elephants at the zoo, and invest further in conservation and education programs.
Unfortunately, some opponents of the zoo have chosen to ignore the expert review panel findings and the majority opinion of the task force.
Opponents also appear to have ignored public opinion. For years, regional surveys and interviews with zoo visitors show people view the zoo as a great asset and trust the experts at the zoo to make decisions about the animals they care for every day. This view is also borne out by the fact that the zoo has the highest favorability rating of any institution in our region — 92 percent.
Further evidence the zoo is a trusted and beloved institution comes from our all-time-high visitor attendance of more than 1.2 million in 2013 and nearly 16,000 individual donors who contributed more than $83 million to our More Wonder More Wild campaign.
This kind of support is a direct result of the excellent care all of the animals at the zoo receive, including our elephants.
Our reputation is also based on a 115-year history with the citizens of this region. For decades, the zoo was owned by the City of Seattle and regularly received huge support from voters to expand and improve its programs.
Then, in 2002, the nonprofit Woodland Park Zoological Society entered into an agreement with the city to take over zoo operations. Since then, this region’s voters have continued to strongly support public funding for the zoo.
Contrary to views expressed by some, we continue to follow both the letter and the spirit of our agreement with the city and welcome public input on how we use our limited public funds.
Finally, with passion and commitment, the board, staff and volunteers serve as stewards of the zoo’s animal, education and conservation programs. We will continue to provide this region with the wonder and joy experienced by all when visiting the zoo.
Nancy Pellegrino, left, is the chair and Laurie Stewart is the vice chair of the Woodland Park Zoo Board of Directors.