Activists seek to stop the transfer of elephants Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo, arguing that Seattle was wrong to transfer ownership from the city to Woodland Park Zoo years ago.

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Who owns Bamboo and Chai?

Throughout the long debate over Seattle’s beloved elephants, the answer to that question seemed unequivocal. The 20-year agreement between the city of Seattle and the nonprofit Woodland Park Zoological Society specifies that all zoo animals are the “sole property” of the society.

But now, activists who want Woodland Park Zoo’s aging pachyderms retired to a sanctuary are challenging the legal foundation of that agreement.

A lawsuit filed Friday by the Seattle-based Elephant Justice Project argues that the city of Seattle had no right to hand over ownership of the animals more than a decade ago.

“Our lawsuit is powerful in its simplicity,” said Knoll Lowney, the group’s attorney. “These elephants belong to the city of Seattle and its residents.” The suit also asks for an injunction to stop the impending transfer of the elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Woodland Park Zoo agreed not to move the animals before an April 3 hearing on the motion in King County Superior Court.

A legal victory by the Elephant Justice Project, which is affiliated with Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, could bounce the decision about Chai and Bamboo’s fate to the City Council, a majority of whom favor sending the animals to a sanctuary.

In a news conference at City Hall on Monday, Lowney conceded the suit was a last resort. But he said it raises an important question no one asked before — because there was never a major controversy about the fate of the zoo’s animals.

The activists’ argument hearkens back to 2000, when the state Legislature authorized some cities to contract out “management and operation” of their zoos and aquariums to nonprofits or other organizations. When Seattle’s agreement with the zoological society took effect in 2002, the city transferred ownership of all zoo facilities and animals at no cost.

The lawsuit claims that action was an illegal and unconstitutional forfeiture of public property to a private entity.

“The legislature never gave the city the right to give away its zoo property and all of its zoo animals,” Lowney said.

The suit also points out that under Seattle’s municipal code, decisions about the sale, purchase or loan of zoo animals are up to the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the zoological society, said in an email Monday that he just received a copy of the suit and wasn’t sure when a response would be filed.

A 2010 lawsuit against the city over alleged cruelty at Woodland Park’s elephant exhibit was dismissed by both Superior and appellate courts because the zoological society, not the city, controls the animals.

The zoo’s legal control over the animals was also cited by City Council members and Mayor Ed Murray as the reason they would not fight the Oklahoma move.

In a letter to Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, Ed Stewart, the co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California, said he would be open to discussing Chai and Bamboo’s future and had room at the 2,300-acre complex to accommodate more elephants. An unidentified benefactor has reportedly offered to pay the transportation costs.

But zoo officials ruled out the sanctuary because it does not have a multigenerational herd of Asian elephants, and because one Asian elephant is being treated for tuberculosis, a prevalent infection in North America’s captive elephants.

In Oklahoma City, Chai and Bamboo would join five other Asian elephants, including two young females and two calves. The transfer would be a long-term loan, with no money exchanging hands.

The debate over elephants in zoos intensified in 2012, when a Seattle Times investigation found that two captives elephants die, on average, for every one born. The majority of deaths are linked to conditions of captivity, including foot problems and arthritis caused by standing on hard surfaces.

For the second week in a row, Woodland Park Zoo supporters and opponents packed City Council chambers for the Monday meeting, even though elephants weren’t on the agenda.

Woodland Park volunteer Cathy Sommerfeld praised the council for not intervening. “The experts have weighed their options and made the best decision for our elephants,” she said.

But Sandy Smith, of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, said she suspects the zoo is fearful of losing its accreditation from the powerful Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which opposes the transfer of elephants to sanctuaries.