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The Elephant Justice Project’s lawsuit questioning the Woodland Park Zoo’s authority to give Asian elephants  Bamboo and Chai over to the Oklahoma City Zoo could be a game-changer, or at least a stall tactic. An attorney for the group admits this is a last-ditch effort to save the elephants from having to stay in captivity at a zoo. So far, the zoo has agreed not to move the animals before an April 3 court hearing.

Chai, one of the Woodland Park Zoo’s two Asian elephants. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Chai, one of the Woodland Park Zoo’s two Asian elephants. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

This gives city officials a little more time to muster the will to act.

Earlier this year, a majority of the City Council and Mayor Ed Murray came out in favor of sending Chai and Bamboo to a sanctuary where they would have space to roam and be free. But since the zoo’s Feb. 27 announcement that they would be joining an elephant herd in Oklahoma City, these same city officials have given up. The Seattle Times editorial board opposes the decision to move the elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

City leaders should use their bully pulpit to find a resolution. In their dual roles as leaders of the voter-approved Seattle Park District and the City Council, council members hold the purse strings, including 30 percent or $6 million of the zoo’s annual public funding. Why give up now?

In November 2014, I wrote a blog post outlining the council members’ positions on letting the zoo decide the animals’ fate and whether they should go to a sanctuary. Last week, I sent another email to the mayor’s office and each council member asking whether they accepted the zoo’s decision or whether the city could take further action. Here’s a rundown of their responses, either direct or through other media sources:

Mayor Ed Murray (during a March 5 appearance on The Seattle Channel’s “Civic Cocktail” program):  “I think that there are good people on the zoo board on both sides of this issue. I think the fact that it’s been dragged out and we don’t have clear resolution has not been helpful for the zoo. Again, my position was and remains — I would prefer a sanctuary. I think what’s unfortunate is that the situation is hurting the zoo. I wish there was leadership to just simply move these elephants to a sanctuary. Folks say, ‘Well, the city gives money to the zoo.’ We do, but cutting money for all the other animals or great programs at the zoo… I don’t think is the leverage that I should use.”

Council President and Councilmember Tim Burgess: “I accept the zoo decision. Obviously, this has been a lively debate with many competing opinions, but I see no reason to substitute my judgment for that of the animal professions at the zoo. I don’t believe there will be any further city action on this topic.” (Previous position: no change)

Councilmember Nick Licata: “I signed the Jan. 26 letter to the zoo board asking the zoo to consider sending the elephants to a sanctuary. I’m disappointed they didn’t choose that route.” (Previous position: In November 2014, Licata supported sending the animals to sanctuary. He also co-signed Bagshaw’s January letter to the zoo supporting this option.)

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen: “I believe that the zoo wants the best for the future of the elephants. I believe that this has become more of a political issue than an animal welfare issue. I am not a scientist nor veterinarian. I am not qualified to evaluate which is the better site.” (Previous position: no change)

Councilmember Sally Clark (via legislative aide Jesse Gilliam): “She wanted me to let you know she does accept the zoo’s decision.” (Previous position: no change)

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw (via a March 5 Seattle Times news report): “We’re not going to be doing anything more at this point.” (Previous position: Bagshaw’s office sent the zoo the January letter co-signed by the mayor and four other council members in support of sending the elephants to a sanctuary.)

Other council members: Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien and Jean Godden have not responded to my latest inquiry. Sawant, Harrell and O’Brien signed Bagshaw’s letter supporting the sanctuary option. Godden did not, and has publicly supported sending Chai and Bamboo to another zoo.

The battle is not over. Too many animals rights advocates in Seattle believe the moral argument for retiring these elephants trumps the 20-year agreement between the city and the zoo.

Perhaps council members are betting this will not be a big issue for voters in next year’s district elections. Never doubt the will of a small group of vocal, active citizens who share a deep, decades-long connection to Chai and Bamboo. They have been effective ambassadors for their species. Bagshaw’s decision not to fight the zoo board’s decision is disappointing, but she is right to nudge the discussion toward alternative ways of educating the public about elephant conservation in the wild. (Think: 3-D exhibit.)

Seattle should be embarrassed so many other cities have beaten us to the punch and realized that elephant captivity is not the only answer. At least 25 accredited zoos have closed or plan to phase out their exhibits, according to this 2014 Seattle Times news report. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced it’s retiring its elephants to a complex in Florida.

Don’t Chai, 36, and Bamboo, 48, deserve the same treatment? Placing them in crates for a 40-hour journey to a completely new home where it’s unclear whether they will be accepted by the current elephant herd has the makings of a cruel experiment.

The Woodland Park Zoo and the City of Seattle could save taxpayers from a legal bills and heartache by keeping Chai and Bamboo where they are — at least for now.  The two Asian elephants should stay here until a sanctuary is ready and prepared to take them.

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