Seattle’s two elephants were trucked off to the Oklahoma City Zoo even as City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was working behind the scenes to block the move.
Even as Woodland Park Zoo hustled its elephants out of town Wednesday, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was working behind the scenes to block the animals’ transfer to the Oklahoma City Zoo.
At Sawant’s request, the city attorney’s office recently drew up a proposed ordinance directing the zoo to send 48-year-old Bamboo and 36-year-old Chai to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California.
In a statement to animal-welfare advocates, she said the sanctuary option could have been ensured if “city officials had acted in a timely manner.”
The animals were loaded on a truck Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after a federal court rejected advocates’ request for an injunction to block the transfer.
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Woodland Park Zoo spokeswoman Gigi Allianic said the transfer was not rushed to pre-empt council action. “The timing was right,” she said. “We had a crane available, we had the transport company available and we had favorable weather.”
Allianic said zoo officials had not seen the proposed ordinance and couldn’t comment on it.
It’s not clear how many other council members would have supported Sawant’s ordinance, but a majority of them — and Mayor Ed Murray — signed a letter in January asking the zoo to give serious consideration to a sanctuary in deciding the elephants’ fate.
On April 10, Sawant emailed Murray and her fellow council members, saying it was up to elected officials to take action and that it was clear they had the legal authority to do so. She suggested a delegation meet with zoo staff and urge them to voluntarily agree to the sanctuary.
“The animal rights advocates have made a compelling case that sending the elephants to a sanctuary instead of another zoo is the best way to avoid animal cruelty,” Sawant wrote.
She cited an April 8 letter from Ed Stewart, president of PAWS, reiterating the sanctuary’s willingness to “commit to lifetime care for Bamboo and Chai.”
Stewart also said the sanctuary had a 14,000-square-foot-barn that could be modified and 15 acres of pristine woodland that could be fenced to provide a habitat for the Seattle elephants. (The largest yard at the Oklahoma City Zoo is 2.6 acres, which Chai and Bamboo will likely share with four other females.) Stewart estimated the construction work at PAWS would take about six months, and said donors had already pledged $500,000 to pay for it.
Woodland Park officials have said they rejected the PAWS sanctuary largely because Chai and Bamboo would have no other Asian elephants to socialize with there, whereas the Oklahoma City Zoo has a herd of five, including two youngsters.
After Woodland Park announced its choice of Oklahoma City, Murray and at least one council member said they were disappointed. But Murray stressed that the decision was the zoo’s to make.
The city owns the land where the zoo is located, and local governments provide about a third of its budget. But the facility is operated by the Woodland Park Zoo Society under a 20-year agreement.
That agreement transferred ownership of the animals to the zoo, and gave the staff broad discretion over their management. But another provision of the contract, cited by Sawant, says the zoo must follow all “existing and adopted acquisition and disposition policies approved by the City.”
Sawant also had a draft acquisition and disposition policy drawn up to implement her proposed ordinance.
Even though the elephants are gone, Sawant still plans to introduce a version of the ordinance that would apply in future cases where the fate of zoo animals is in dispute, said legislative aide Ted Virdone. Woodland Park still owns the Seattle elephants, he added, so it’s also an open question whether such an ordinance could be invoked to force their removal from Oklahoma City.
That possibility is about the only hope left for animal-welfare advocates who lost all of their legal attempts to block the move. “Given that Bamboo and Chai are on loan, we welcome the City’s efforts to exercise its authority and not abandon these elephants,” said Alyne Fortgang of the Elephant Justice Project.
But city action could also have consequences for the zoo.
The Toronto Zoo lost its accreditation from the powerful Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2012, after the city council overrode the zoo board and sent three aging African elephants to the PAWS sanctuary instead of another zoo.