Washington’s long history of keeping elephants in zoos is near its end. The death this month of an elderly Asian elephant in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo leaves just one ill elephant in its care, Suki. She is 55 — eight years past the median life span of Asian female elephants in captivity — and is now the only zoo elephant in the state.
Tacoma’s zoo has rightly chosen to close and transform its elephant exhibit area — eventually. Suki has tuberculosis and cannot be shipped out of state to an elephant preserve, under an order from Washington State Veterinarian Brian Joseph. Point Defiance Zoo plans to maintain her home the rest of her life, then remake the elephants’ space into a habitat for animal species more suited to zoo life.
This conversion is a necessary, and overdue, evolution for how zoos operate. Elephants thrive in multigenerational herds with freedom to roam; city zoos rarely provide even a modicum of this. Woodland Park Zoo’s abhorrent handling of its transition away from elephants — sending the last two, Bamboo and Chai, away to an Oklahoma zoo, where Chai died — need not be revisited. Point Defiance Zoo should improve on that tragic legacy by fulfilling its commitment to Suki’s geriatric care.
However, Woodland Park Zoo’s conversion of the former elephant space to the Assam Rhino Reserve is an example for how Tacoma’s zoo, and others across the nation closing down their elephant exhibits, could approach the post-pachyderm era.
Woodland Park Zoo chose to introduce rhinoceroses in part because they are generally not social animals and require less roaming space, zoo spokesperson Gigi Allianic explained. Rhinos also share elephants’ troubled status as species threatened by poachers, she added.
“Having rhinos here allows us to still educate our visitors about wildlife trafficking,” she said. “Rhinos are an iconic symbol.”
Tacoma’s zoo leaders should keep similar goals in mind when deciding what to do with Suki’s enclosure once her life is over. The conversation is long overdue; Point Defiance Zoo is nearly a decade past the 2011 announcement that the elephants then under its care would be its last. Yet a spokesperson said the question of what to do next remains open.
The reuse of the exhibit space has an important place in zoos’ mission of education for visitors of all ages, from children learning about the diversity of species to adults learning the importance of protecting wildlife from man-made and other threats. Rhinos are one of several potential choices Point Defiance Zoo can make for its next phase.
The Seattle Times’ 2012 investigation into zoo elephant exhibits found that more than 20 zoos across the country had wisely decided to shut down elephant exhibits. More have since followed. Elephants deserve better lives, and zoos must find better ways to educate visitors while treating animals respectfully.