AS a member of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force, I reviewed the zoo’s elephant program. I strongly disagree with the zoo board’s decision to send Chai and Bamboo to another zoo. Chai and Bamboo should go to an elephant sanctuary.
In a sanctuary such as PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) in Northern California, elephants have many acres in which to roam without restraint. No one can seriously doubt that elephants that have 15 or more acres to roam are better off than elephants crammed into a 1 or 2 acre exhibit in a zoo.
Standards for elephant sanctuaries established by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries are in many cases more stringent than the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) accreditation standards for zoos. Sanctuaries are licensed and monitored by the same governmental agencies as zoos.
Years ago, Bamboo was sent to the Point Defiance Zoo to be with more Asian elephants. She did not integrate into the existing herd and was returned to the Woodland Park Zoo. If Chai and Bamboo are sent to another zoo, they could end up living just as they do now, a herd of two in crowded space — or worse, separated and bounced from zoo to zoo.
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In a sanctuary, integration into the herd has greater potential for success. There is so much space available that elephants have the option to simply avoid those they don’t like.
Tuberculosis affects many elephants both in sanctuaries and in AZA-accredited zoos. All facilities with ill elephants must provide treatment, and quarantine when appropriate.
All three female Asian elephants at PAWS are quarantined because they have tested positive for TB. Initially, if sent to PAWS, Bamboo and Chai would continue as a herd of two, just as they are at WPZ, but with vastly expanded acreage to roam. However, once there, additional female Asian elephants retired in the future from other zoos and circuses could join them.
In fact, the Woodland Park Zoo could guarantee this result. Some years ago, the zoo loaned Sri, another Asian elephant, to the St. Louis Zoo, where she is one of 10 elephants sharing 1.5 acres of space. The Woodland Park Zoo still owns Sri and should rescue her and send her to PAWS along with Chai and Bamboo. Instead, the zoo wants to send Chai and Bamboo to a similar fate.
Circuses and zoos justify exhibiting elephants in small spaces by claiming this inspires visitors to save wild elephants. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums even funded a study that concluded that zoo visits resulted in long-term positive effects on visitors’ attitudes toward animals. However, scientists from Emory University and elsewhere conducted a study which dismissed the AZA study as fundamentally flawed: “There is no compelling or even suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education and interest in conservation in visitors.” A third study concluded that, although visitors said that they would engage in more conservation activities, no measurable change in behavior occurred as a result of zoo visits.
In the 21st century, Seattle has better ways to save wild elephants and their habitats than continuing to keep Chai and Bamboo at a zoo.
Lyn Tangen is a member of the Task Force on the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Exhibit & Program, resides in Seattle, and serves on the boards of FareStart, Friends of Waterfront Seattle and other nonprofits.