Activists want an investigation of the failed attempt to move Seattle’s two elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo when the weather forecast called for snow in the Rockies.
The eminent wildlife biologist Jane Goodall weighed in Thursday on Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants, while activists urged city officials to investigate last week’s aborted attempt to move Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Goodall was in Seattle this week to visit the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which has funded some of her work to protect great apes in Africa. She issued a statement urging that Seattle’s elephants be sent to a sanctuary in California.
“I have spent many hours watching (elephants) in the wild and I feel great sadness when I see them in zoos,” she wrote. “Many have suffered for years, both physically and psychologically, in inappropriate captive conditions.”
But conditions at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in California are “optimal” for former zoo and circus elephants, Goodall added. “Bamboo and Chai deserve to live out their lives in this wonderful place where they can roam over a relatively large area.”
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The elephants have spent much of the past week in a small quarantine area at the San Diego Zoo, where a Woodland Park official said they will remain for several more weeks before being shipped to Oklahoma City.
The convoy carrying the animals was diverted to California when a snowstorm struck on the intended route through the southern Rocky Mountains.
Woodland Park Zoo officials say the forecast was “favorable” when the caravan pulled out of Seattle the evening of Wednesday, April 15, just hours after a court ruling cleared the way for the elephants’ transfer.
But earlier that day, the National Weather Service warned of heavy snow across the central and southern Rocky Mountains, including the Salt Lake City region where bad weather forced the caravan to detour south on April 16.
“By Wednesday, everybody knew there was going to be a pretty significant snowstorm,” said Al Ross, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Riverton, Wyo. “Salt Lake City was talking about the storm, we were talking about it, Cheyenne was talking about it, Denver was talking about it.”
Treacherous driving conditions caused so many crashes on I-80 in southern Wyoming, where the convoy had planned to travel, that a large stretch of the freeway was closed for nearly two days.
Facing a much longer trip because of the detour, and with signs that 48-year-old Bamboo was tiring in her small crate, officials opted to divert to the San Diego Zoo. The elephants arrived there about 3 p.m. on Friday, April 17, nearly 48 hours after they were loaded into their containers in Seattle.
Animal-welfare activists on Thursday questioned whether the zoo discounted the weather forecast in its eagerness to get the animals out of town.
“Rushing an animal transport is the most dangerous thing you can do,” said Julie Woodyer, of Zoocheck Canada, which was involved in moving three elephants from the Toronto Zoo to the PAWS sanctuary.
The Seattle move came shortly after a state appeals-court panel refused to grant an injunction blocking the transfer. Councilmember Kshama Sawant was also drawing up an ordinance that would have required the elephants be transferred to a sanctuary, though zoo officials have said they didn’t know it was in the works.
“We did a lot of preparation for the move, a lot of training, a lot of coordination,” said Bruce Bohmke, Woodland Park’s chief operating officer. Lawsuits delayed the move, so the zoo was eager to act once the obstacles were gone. “I’m sure there was a desire to get them on the road,” he said.
Bohmke said he wasn’t directly involved in planning the move, but that others told him the bad weather initially appeared to be concentrated south of the route, which passed through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. But by the time the caravan approached Salt Lake City, he said, the storm shifted north and intensified.
“I’m sure they would not have knowingly set off thinking that they were going to have to change, and not go by the most direct route,” Bohmke said.
But Alyne Fortgang, of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, said an independent investigation is needed to determine whether the zoo compromised the animals’ safety, and to ensure that the next leg of their journey is well-planned.
Bohmke said there is no truth to rumors that either elephant suffered from colic, a digestive problem, en route. “When they arrived in San Diego, they walked out the crates and in a very short time were eating and drinking and sleeping,” he said.
The detour will be costly, he acknowledged. In addition to the expense of sending keepers to San Diego to tend the elephants, Woodland Park will have to pay a premium on top of the original $111,000 price tag for the move. The moving expenses are split between the Seattle and Oklahoma zoos.
The elephants now face a second trip of about 1,350 miles from San Diego to Oklahoma City. Bohmke said the goal is to make that move before the summer heat sets in.