After two years of turmoil, Woodland Park Zoo’s two remaining elephants are being sent to the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Woodland Park Zoo’s two remaining elephants are headed to Oklahoma.
Zoo officials announced Friday that 48-year-old Bamboo and 36-year-old Chai will be moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in late March to mid-April.
The decision comes after two years of turmoil during which the zoo came under increasing fire from critics of elephant captivity. But with legal action likely, it’s not clear whether the choice of Oklahoma will be the final word on the animals’ fate.
Woodland Park President and CEO Deborah Jensen said Oklahoma City was the best option for the two Asian elephants, who have lived in Seattle for most of their lives.
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With a $13 million habitat completed in 2011, the Oklahoma zoo is already home to five Asian elephants: A 47-year-old male, two young adult females and two female calves, including one born in December.
“Chai and Bamboo are going to have a great opportunity to live and socialize in a herd of elephants, and they are going to receive exemplary care,” Jensen said.
But Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, said the animals won’t have significantly more room to roam than they do now, and will also face bitter cold in Oklahoma City, where the temperature Friday was 18 degrees, with light snow falling.
“It’s quite clear the zoo is not making the elephants’ well-being a priority,” she said. “The quality of life for Bamboo and Chai will be worse if they go to Oklahoma City.”
Fortgang and her organization say the elephants would be better off in one of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries, where animals are not on public display, are not bred and are allowed to roam over large tracts of land.
Jensen said both sanctuaries have problems that made them unsuitable, ranging from a lack of stable management to the presence of tuberculosis infections.
At the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California, the Asian elephant herd is under quarantine due to TB. That means Chai and Bamboo would have to be isolated by themselves at least until the other animals are treated and declared clear of active disease, said Dr. Darin Collins, director of animal health programs at Woodland Park.
Scrutiny of Woodland Park’s elephant programs intensified in late 2012, after a Seattle Times investigation found that for every elephant born in captivity nationwide, two die on average. Most deaths stem from conditions related to captivity, including foot problems and arthritis from standing on hard surfaces.
While denying problems publicly, the National Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) privately described the high mortality levels as a crisis, and has been advocating for more aggressive breeding programs.
The Seattle Times series documented more than 100 unsuccessful attempts to artificially inseminate Chai.
After establishing a task force to review its practices, Woodland Park announced plans in 2014 to expand the elephant exhibit. But that idea was dropped after the death of Watoto, the zoo’s oldest elephant. In November 2014, the zoo said it would join a growing list of zoos across the country in closing its elephant exhibit.
Since then, zoo officials say they have visited a half dozen other facilities in search of a new home for “the girls.”
Oklahoma’s exhibit includes three outdoor yards that total about 3.6 acres, said Laura Bottaro, the zoo’s animal curator. Each yard has a pool, the biggest of which includes a waterfall and a stream.
The elephant habitat at Woodland Park is about one acre, or a half-acre per animal. With a herd of seven elephants, the space per animal will be comparable in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma zoo’s 12,600-square-foot barn, with radiant floor heating, is big enough to accommodate a dozen elephants.
Bottaro said she observed Chai and Bamboo this week, and doesn’t anticipate any problems integrating them into the Oklahoma herd. She expects the elder Bamboo to assume the role of matriarch, while Chai acts as an “auntie” to the younger females.
But if the introductions don’t go well, the Oklahoma exhibit is large and complex enough that animals can be kept separated, Bottaro added.
Oklahoma City’s elephants put on daily “demonstrations” for visitors, running through the various postures they are trained to assume in order to have blood drawn or to undergo medical exams. The animals aren’t forced to perform, and the zoo doesn’t use bullhooks or other coercive methods, Bottaro said.
Though medical tests show there’s not much chance of Chai becoming pregnant, officials said they wouldn’t rule out the possibility that she might breed with Rex, Oklahoma City’s bull elephant.
Training has started to familiarize the Seattle elephants with the climate-controlled crates in which they will make the 2,000-mile trip to their new home via tractor-trailer. The trip will take 30 to 40 hours.
Upon arrival, the Seattle elephants will be quarantined for 30 days but will be able to see, smell and hear their new companions, Bottaro said. Keepers will gradually move the animals closer, watching for signs of aggression or friendliness before removing all barriers.
Fortgang’s group still hopes to block the transfer. They filed legal notice last month of their intent to sue Woodland Park and any zoo that accepts Bamboo and Chai. The activists argue that conditions in zoos are so detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of Asian elephants that they violate Endangered Species Act protections.
Jensen said she’s confident the zoo would prevail in court.
It remains to be seen whether the Seattle City Council will take any action. Mayor Ed Murray and five council members wrote the zoo in January, asking them to consider a sanctuary and to ensure that the elephants’ new habitat provides more space per elephant and is located in a warmer part of the country.
Despite providing about 30 percent of the zoo’s budget, though, local governments have limited authority over the nonprofit that operates the zoo.
Activists urged the council to adopt a resolution favoring a sanctuary — a measure the zoo might be required to abide by.
“It’s crucial for the well-being of elephants Chai and Bamboo that Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council exercise their very clear legal authority to override Woodland Park Zoo’s misguided decision to transfer the elephants to The Oklahoma Zoo,” said a statement from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
Neither Murray nor members of the City Council offered any comment Friday.