SEATTLE – After 45 years of life, Watoto, an African Elephant, died at the Woodland Park Zoo Friday morning. Watoto has been at the zoo for the past 44 years, but overnight she collapsed and never recovered. She was euthanized Friday morning.
Zoo officials believe Watoto died of old age, but her official cause of death will be released in a few weeks. The elephant's death has brought life to a conversation that has gone on for many years. Do elephants belong in a zoo?
Bruce Bohmke said the one acre elephant exhibit opened at the zoo in 1989.
"It's still a very good exhibit for elephants," Bohmke said. "It has a lot of variety. It has pools and hills and lots of variety that animals need to have a successful life."
Bohmke said a 45 year life for an elephant in captivity is average, but many activists believe it could have been much longer had she been in the wild.
"That's been the fundamental disagreement between the activists and the zoo supporters," Seattle Times investigative reporter Michael Berens said. "Is it appropriate to have the earth's largest land mammal in a zoo?"
Berens put together an eight-month investigation in 2012 on elephant captivity.
"The zoo industry is claiming that elephants are thriving in American accredited zoos and what 'The Times' found is that they are actually dying out faster than they are being born."
"Research shows that elephants who live in captivity die prematurely compared to elephants in the wild," Berens said. "For every elephant born in an American zoo, two others die. You can do the numbers yourself. This population of elephants is shrinking."
Berens said that he knows the zoo is trying their best, and Bruce Bohmke agrees with that.
"We give great care, we provide a great house for them and they live a long time in captivity," Bohmke said.
Bohmke said he knows the conversation about elephants in captivity will take place in the days and weeks to come, but today he was focused on the loss of Watoto.
"End of life is difficult for all the keepers," Bohmke said. "It's just especially difficult for this type of animal that's been here for a long time. The whole zoo is kind of in mourning now."