Home Op-eds Elephant Task Force fails in its transparency promise

As a columnist for a Seattle paper,  I covered the work of the Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force. Upon initiating the Task Force, the co-chairs insisted that their review of the WPZ elephant program was to be transparent and impartial.  Unfortunately, I found this wasn’t the case.  Instead, the Zoo and its public relations firm, Cocker Fennessy, repeatedly tried to thwart my efforts to get the information for in-depth coverage of the Task Force’s work.

As I researched information for an article on the May 2013 Task Force meeting, where the option of sanctuary for the elephants was discussed, I found that no one from The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the largest elephant sanctuary in the United States, had been allowed to speak. When I asked Ms. Fennessy (at Cocker Fennessy) why this was, she said a representative of The Elephant Sanctuary had been invited to speak but could not participate.

To confirm, I called Angela Spivey, communications manager for The Elephant Sanctuary, and Ms. Spivey said she was never asked to speak. She said no one from Cocker Fennessy or the Zoo ever contacted the Sanctuary. When I circled back with Ms. Fennessy, I was told she contacted a person who no longer worked at the Sanctuary, but then made no further attempts to contact the Sanctuary. When I tried to find out more about this failure to contact, Cocker Fennessy ignored my correspondence.

I was dismayed that the Task Force was never allowed to hear crucial information about the sanctuary option.  Additionally, two prominent local elephant welfare advocates, Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, and Lisa Kane, J.D., author of Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, did not address the Task Force despite nearly a decade of advocacy to send the elephants to a sanctuary.

During the June Task Force meeting, co-chair Jay Manning said Ms. Fortgang and Ms. Kane declined to speak because the Task Force would not meet their condition that an independent veterinarian be allowed to examine the elephants. Ms. Fortgang and Ms. Kane explained to me that an independent veterinary examination was necessary because the Zoo’s “Expert Review Panel” was chaired by Zoo board member, Bryan Slinker.  Prior to the Task Force review, Slinker wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed piece that the Zoo’s elephants had no health problems, which was contrary to the Zoo’s own medical records and to the Seattle Times investigative findings in “Glamour Beasts”.

Finally, my attempts to speak with members of the Task Force responsible for the minority opinion published in the Task Force Final Report were completely blocked.  Cocker Fennessy refused to respond to my requests to interview specific Task Force members.  I notified the Zoo about this lack of response, but was still prevented from speaking to Task Force members.

An independent survey of Seattle residents shows that 62% of Seattle residents support retiring the elephants to sanctuary. Clearly, Seattle residents are aware of the inherent problems of keeping elephants in captivity and understand that a solution is only a matter of deciding to act. Instead, the Zoo has spent 13 months and substantial money skewing public awareness of the elephant issues by staging a Task Force that was denied relevant and objective information, and by publishing biased medical results, barring outside veterinarian examinations, and thwarting even the most reasonable attempts by writers to determine if the Task Force was legitimate or just a public relations stunt.

As a result, I feel the public must be warned that regardless of repeated statements of transparency, the Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force was far from open, transparent, or unbiased.  However, this does not excuse the Zoo from failing to act. The Zoo should move the elephants to sanctuary in short order.

About Christie Lagally

This post is provided via the editor of Living Humane Online.

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