by Christie Lagally
The evidence against keeping elephants in captivity keeps mounting. Recent findings published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” show that elephants can distinguish between different human languages and discern whether men or women are speaking in a recording played for the herd. Multitudes of studies like these over the last 30 years have led us to the undeniable conclusion that these creatures are thoughtful beings with independent intelligence and vast awareness.
Wild elephants live in close-knit matriarchal family groups and need a warm climate and wide-open spaces to roam. These are just some of the conditions that can never be met for elephants that are held in captivity in zoos and circuses.
Like the evidence against keeping elephants in captivity, the calls from the Seattle community to retire the elephants at Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) to sanctuary also are mounting. In December 2012, The Seattle Times published a two-part exposé on the horrific conditions for elephants in zoo and circus industries, including at WPZ. Since then, the Times has published four editorials calling on WPZ to retire elephants Chai, Bamboo and Watoto to sanctuary and chastising WPZ for its relentless and abusive elephant-breeding program.
Each day, more and more voices call for elephant retirement. Former WPZ director David Hancocks and former Seattle City Councilmember Judy Nicastro both have written op-ed pieces for The Seattle Times advocating for the elephants’ retirement and citing the “physical, social, psychological and emotional deprivation” they suffer at WPZ and their need for “autonomy, huge spaces, companionship of their choosing and a warm climate.”
For the last decade, The Seattle Times has published countless letters to the editor from citizens who empathize with the plight of the WPZ elephants and want them retired to sanctuary. Further, a recent survey commissioned by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants shows that 62 percent of Seattle voters believe the elephants should be moved to a sanctuary immediately.
Yet, 16 months after The Seattle Times articles and as of this printing, there are no public plans by WPZ to retire the elephants or improve current conditions.
Instead, last September, WPZ’s Elephant Task Force, appointed by WPZ to review the elephant exhibit, released its findings. The Task Force majority recommended retaining the elephant exhibit and starting a breeding program, while a minority strongly recommended improving conditions for the elephants in the short term and then “discontinue its elephant program.”
The City of Seattle contracts with the Woodland Park Zoological Society to run the zoo. The zoo receives approximately $6 million per year ($6,478,611 reported on 2012 income statements) from the Seattle City General Fund and an additional $4 million per year ($3,983,460 in 2012) from the King County Special Property Tax Levy. Hence, taxpayer dollars account for approximately one-third of the zoo’s total annual budget of around $30 million.
The zoo’s elephant program costs approximately $787,470 per year, according to Task Force documents.
With one-third of the zoo’s income coming from taxpayers, it is reasonable that public input on the ethical decisions of keeping or retiring these elephants to sanctuary should be voiced, heard, considered and immediately acted upon.
In recent months, a new organization has formed to help local residents voice their support for elephant retirement. The Community Coalition for Elephant Retirement (CCER) seeks to unify, and therefore amplify, the voices of citizens who support sanctuary retirement for Chai, Bamboo and Watoto, and I, too, have lent my voice to CCER’s cause.
CCER’s message is simple in that we as a community are calling on the WPZ to start making plans to move Chai, Bamboo and Watoto to a sanctuary accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. CCER is asking the community —including you, me and our friends and neighbors — to give a shout-out for elephant retirement just like The Seattle Times editorial board and our community leaders have already done.
CCER is making this advocacy very easy: Simply go to Facebook and “Like” the CCER page to add your name to the list of supporters. Every “Like” counts to help the zoo understand that compassion for the plight of captive elephants is truly a community value.
Also, visit the CCER webpage at http://www.elephantretirement.org to learn about Chai, Bamboo and Watoto and how to get involved and make sure the voices for the elephants are heard.
Undeniably, it’s time to move these precious three souls from their rainy, one-acre exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo, to live out their lives as permanent snowbirds in a sunny sanctuary. It’s time for them to retire.
Following the herd
To date, 27 zoos in the United States and Canada have closed or plan to close their elephant exhibits for the same reasons that apply to Seattle’s WPZ exhibit.
As a community it has always been our job to call out and rally against injustice, cruelty and abuse. Seattle has faced many such challenges in the past and has shown that when a community advocates for the voiceless, the community benefits — even when it means a diversion from the status quo.
CHRISTIE LAGALLY is a writer and the editor of Living Humane (livinghumane.com). She also writes the blog “Sniffing Out Home: A Search for Animal Welfare Solutions” (www.sniffingouthome.org).