After nearly a century, the elephant exhibit at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo could close. Zoo officials emphasize they have no plans to close the exhibit right now, but it is one of many options that could be considered.
“We want the elephants to be around for a long, long time,” said the zoo’s Bruce Upchurch.
Elephants at Woodland Park date back to 1921, and still leave a strong impression on those who see them.
“They’ve been here forever,” Tom Donaldson said as he fed one of the elephants with his son, Corrigan. “It's a great experience to bring the kids down and they get to see something they normally wouldn't in the city.“
However, many researchers now believe keeping elephants in captivity is cruel. A 2009 protest brought actress Lily Tomlin to Seattle, demanding Woodland Park close its exhibit.
Captive elephants typically have shorter life expectancies and herpes has mutated into a lethal form. In 2007 herpes killed the zoo’s celebrated baby “Hansa.”
Woodland Park currently has three elephants, Chai (34), Watoto (44) and Bamboo (46). Zookeepers say they are all well cared for and their educational value to the public is critical to the survival of the species.
“We want kids to get that feeling that we get, and then maybe they become involved in saving an endangered species,” said Upchurch. “It’s like going to a Mariners game. You can watch it on TV, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person.”
In recent years, zoos in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit have closed their elephant exhibits. Now, a task force has been convened to figure out the future for elephants here in Seattle.
“It’s a very complex situation,” said Annette Laico, a taskforce member and Executive Director for the animal advocacy group PAWS.
The taskforce will examine the elephants’ health and living conditions, as well as the overall value of the program for the zoo. It will only issue a report to zoo administrators, not make any recommendations.
At 46, one of the zoo’s elephants Bamboo is considered “elderly.” Laico said the zoo may soon find itself at a crossroads.
“It does beg the question, to continue with two, or change the program," she stated. "There's a wide variety of options.”
In addition to closing the exhibit, those options include bringing in a new elephant or becoming more of a breeding facility.
The taskforce hopes to issue a report to Woodland Park by September. There will be at least three more public meetings on the issue over the summer. For moreinformation visit http://www.elephanttaskforce.org/