After several years of mounting criticism over the condition of its elephants, Woodland Park Zoo officials announced Wednesday that they would relocate their two remaining Asian elephants to another accredited zoo where they could be part of a larger, social herd.
Deborah Jensen, CEO of the zoo, said Chai, 35, and Bamboo, 47, would be sent together to a zoo that has a stable elephant collection that is free of disease and has an active conservation program that will highlight the threat to elephants in the wild.
Thirty-four accredited U.S. zoos have Asian elephant herds.
“We remain committed to putting the welfare of our elephants first,” Jensen said. She predicted that many members of the public would be disappointed that elephants, which have been on display in Seattle for 93 years, will no longer be a part of the zoo.
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“It is a difficult decision to move these animals who have long played an important role as ambassadors for their species in the wild,” she said.
She said the elephant-exhibit area would be used for display of other Asian animal species after review of the space and possible designs.
Mayor Ed Murray praised the decision to phase out the Seattle elephant exhibit. The zoo gets about $6 million in funding from the city annually.
“The zoo board is making the right decision to find a new home for Woodland Park’s elephants, one with more habitat and an interesting social environment. I know this was not an easy decision for the zoo’s senior leaders and the dedicated staff who care for these animals. My concern remains that we must find the best possible facility for Chai and Bamboo.”
The zoo has faced intense criticism over its elephant exhibit, built in 1989, where three elephants shared a small house and about an acre of land. That criticism intensified after the August death of the zoo’s only African elephant, Watoto, who had been on display for more than four decades.
In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture faulted the zoo for sometimes leaving one of the two remaining elephants outdoors with no access to shelter.
But the decision to relocate Chai and Bamboo won’t appease all critics. Elephant activists who waited outside the Seattle zoo after Wednesday’s announcement called on officials to send the two remaining elephants to a wildlife sanctuary and not another zoo, where they would remain on display.
“They have earned the right to retire to a warm, sunny location where they can be on elephant time and do elephant things,” said Lisa Kane, a member of the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.
Another activist, Alyne Fortgang, said relocating Chai and Bamboo to another zoo would mean “more of the same. The elephants need to go to a sanctuary. They’ve been in captivity since they were taken from their mothers as babies. They deserve to be off exhibit to heal from the trauma of captivity.”
Woodland Park will become the 25th zoo in North America to either close or phase out its elephant exhibit, following zoos that include San Francisco, Detroit and Brooklyn. Many zoos closed exhibits after transferring elephants to other accredited facilities, as Woodland Park officials plan to do. But some zoos, like those in Alaska and Detroit, chose to retire their elephants to nonprofit sanctuaries in Tennessee and California.
The number of elephants in captivity continues to decline.
A Seattle Times investigation in 2012 found that for every elephant born in captivity, on average, two others die. Breeding programs have encountered widespread failure, often from injury and disease. About 280 elephants remain in accredited U.S. zoos.
Jensen and other nationally prominent zoo officials have steadfastly defended elephant captivity as a way to raise public awareness and donations that help to preserve elephants in their natural habitats.
But dozens of Seattle activists and national animal-welfare organizations have pushed Woodland Park to retire its elephants to a sanctuary which can provide lifelong care for the animals on acres of land.
Following The Times’ investigation, the zoo launched a task force that conducted a six-month review of the elephant program. The group, which was appointed by the zoo board of directors and dominated by zoo supporters, recommended expansion of the elephant exhibit and creation of a multigenerational herd with an effective breeding program.
In March, zoo officials announced that they would spend up to $3 million to expand the program and relocate Watoto in order to build an all-Asian herd.
But Wednesday, Jensen said that adding to its aging herd was “not realistic in the foreseeable future.” Several zoos, including Denver and Los Angeles, have undertaken multimillion-dollar expansions of their elephant exhibits in hopes of creating successful breeding programs. Woodland Park would be in competition with those zoos for available elephants, Jensen said.
Jensen said the decision was not made in response to public pressure, but after consultation with elephant experts across the country and around the world about what was best for Chai and Bamboo’s welfare.
Martin Ramirez, curator of mammals for Woodland Park Zoo, said the zoo will enlist experienced large-animal transporters to relocate the two elephants and that their keepers will accompany them during the transfer, if the mode of transportation permits.