Dozens of activists who want Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to send its two elephants to a wildlife sanctuary chanted slogans outside the zoo’s gates Tuesday before and during a meeting of the zoo’s board of directors.
“Free Chai, free Bamboo,” they shouted, referring to the two Asian elephants. “Just another zoo won’t do. Make them safe, make them merry. Send them to a sanctuary.”
Only some of the protesters were allowed inside the meeting to speak during a public comment period, and zoo officials would not allow news media to enter.
The zoo is a private nonprofit, but a significant portion of its annual budget — about $7 million — comes from the city.
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“We’re a private organization. This is a private meeting,” said Bruce Bohmke, the zoo’s chief operating officer. “By our contract with the city, we’re required to have a public comment period, and once that’s finished we go on with our meeting. It’s not officially a public meeting.
“We don’t let media in because we can’t accommodate that in the room,” he added, saying reporters would not be allowed access even if they were to show up first.
The zoo posts its board meeting times and agendas on its website, and notes the public comment period at the start of each meeting. It does not give any indication that meetings are private.
Some of the approximately 50 activists briefly rushed the doors of the zoo’s education center, where the meeting was being held, in an attempt to enter.
They stared down a security guard who was forced to bar the door and they complained to zoo officials who, citing space constraints, allowed just 16 members of the public to enter the building.
“I think this was handled really poorly by the zoo,” said Susan Hoppler, 52, a member of Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.
“It was very publicly known that we were going to be here. I think they should have been more prepared to allow us to be able to attend the meeting.”
The meeting was the zoo board’s first since the announcement last month that the zoo will move Chai, 35, and Bamboo, 47, into a larger, social herd at another accredited zoo.
The announcement came after several years of criticism over the zoo’s elephant exhibit, where three elephants shared a small house and about an acre of land. The criticism grew after the death in August of the zoo’s only African elephant, Watoto.
Bohmke said Tuesday that zoo officials have not yet settled on where to send Chai and Bamboo. He said officials decided against sending the elephants to a wildlife sanctuary because two sanctuaries that might take the elephants “both have ongoing health issues as far as we’re aware.”
Alyne Fortgang, of Seattle, who helped found the Friends group, made it inside and said 14 activists were each allowed a minute to speak. She said the zoo should be less “secretive” because it receives taxpayer dollars.
“We want to be heard,” she said afterward. “It’s time to give (the elephants) their lives back and let them live as free as they possibly can in a sanctuary.”