A federal judge declined to block the transfer of Seattle’s elephants to Oklahoma, but said neither Woodland Park Zoo nor Oklahoma City Zoo are adequate for animals’ well-being.
A federal judge issued a strongly worded decision Tuesday criticizing conditions for elephants at the Woodland Park and Oklahoma City zoos.
But U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour denied activists’ request for an injunction to block the transfer of the elephants Chai and Bamboo from Seattle to Oklahoma.
“The court is deeply troubled that the OKC Zoo will not be able to offer Chai and Bamboo the climate nor nearly the amount of space that independent experts have said is necessary for their well-being,” the decision says.
But because Woodland Park Zoo isn’t any better, and because neither of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries can immediately accept the animals or provide a multigenerational herd, the judge determined that moving them “is unlikely to result in any harm beyond that already incurred due to the very fact of Chai and Bamboo’s existence as captive Asian elephants in the United States.”
A lawyer for the Elephant Justice Project, the Seattle group that filed the suit, said a decision will be made soon on whether to appeal.
Tuesday’s ruling leaves opponents of the move with few legal cards left to play.
On Friday, a state judge turned down a separate injunction request that challenged Woodland Park Zoo’s ownership of the elephants. A fast-track appeal was filed, with a hearing set for Thursday. The court ordered Woodland Park not to move the elephants before then.
The federal lawsuit argued that because Asian elephants are an endangered species, moving Chai and Bamboo requires a permit under the Endangered Species Act.
Woodland Park argued that no permit is needed because the long-term loan of the elephants doesn’t constitute commercial activity.
But the judge disagreed. Even though no money is exchanging hands between the two zoos, Coughenour ruled that the transfer is part of a barter system under which members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums transfer animals and gain the benefits that come from new exhibits.
“Because the transfer of Chai and Bamboo is part of this scheme, it appears axiomatic that the transfer would be, at least in part, carried out in the ‘pursuit of gain or profit,’ ” he wrote.
But the judge noted that since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with Woodland Park that no permit was needed, any ESA violation was not “substantial.”
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Coughenour also dismissed the activists’ claim that the 2,000 mile trip to Oklahoma City via flatbed truck would be perilous for the elephants. One elephant did die in transit between Chicago and Utah, on a move overseen by the company hired by Woodland Park. But the judge noted that the company has also successfully relocated more than 88 elephants.
“The court cannot conclude that injury to Chai and/or Bamboo during transit is likely in the absence of an injunction,” the decision says.