Home Op-eds Elephants, Task Force and Tolerance

Michael Beren’s award winning articles in the Seattle Times comprehensively covered the plight of elephants in zoos generally and the disturbing conditions for the Woodland Park Zoo elephants, Chai, Bamboo and Watoto, specifically.  Public response to these articles, as well as years of pressure by dedicated elephant advocates, pressed the WPZ to appoint a Task Force.  The stated purpose of this Task Force is to “conduct an objective and transparent review of WPZ elephants’ health and care, and the value of the elephant program and exhibit to the zoo’s education and conservation objectives”.

Many long-time elephant advocates have been concerned about the objectivity and transparency of the Task Force.  Numerous Task Force members have direct or indirect ties to the zoo.  Some members  serve on the zoo board.  The Task Force was appointed by the zoo and has primarily been informed by the zoo industry.  Of particular concern to elephant advocates is the head of the Expert review Panel,  Brian Slinker, DVM.  In an earlier op-ed for the Seattle Times, Dr. Slinker stated his position that the elephants should remain at the zoo.  This certainly brings objectivity under serious question.

The Expert Review Panel’s conclusions that Chai, Bamboo and Watoto are healthy and happy contradicts zoo medical records that indicate otherwise, and contradicts years of direct observation by elephant advocates

The zoo has been instructed, as described in Michael Beren’s articles, to refer to elephant advocates as “extremists” in order to discredit their efforts on behalf of elephant welfare. It is understandable that many of these advocates have little confidence that a zoo-appointed Task Force would be objective or consider the elephants’ welfare first and foremost.

And yet, as I attended Task Force meetings, I observed that some Task Force members asked questions and raised issues that indicated they valued the elephants’ well being over zoo interests.  Some members openly questioned the zoo’s conflation of the tragedy of wild elephants with the zoo’s need to retain elephants as “ambassadors”. Although the cards seemed stacked against elephant advocacy, it seemed to me that there was a slim hope of a reasonable response by the Task Force as a whole.

Some members of the elephant advocacy community have dismissed the Task Force as “task farce” rather than allowing it to come to reasonable conclusions without excessive criticism.  Although this  is  an understandable response after many years of frustration with, and complete non-cooperation from, the zoo, are we, as dedicated elephant advocates, treating the Task Force members with the same deep distrust, suspicion and disrespect with which we have been treated?

Since animosity typically prevents rational discourse, perhaps reframing the Task Force efforts in light of what may be possible, instead of the disappointment seen to date, could demonstrate to reasonable members that there are more humane possibilities for the elephants than zoo-framed solutions.  Of course, this would require that we, as elephant advocates, treat the Task Force with the respect and consideration that we hope to receive ourselves.

There are numerous rationales for distrust on all sides.  Suspicion easily becomes a habitual response.  Hearts harden, arms cross, stances are taken, nobody budges. Would we elephant advocates rather be right or be effective?  Is it possible to be more effective in finding the best outcome with less criticism and more cooperation?  I realize that many avenues have been  explored to no avail.  What I want to suggest is a new attitude and language that is not necessarily “us against them”.

The Task Force is deeply flawed, but  dismissal does not help the cause, nor improve the potential of conversation over conflict.  Elephant advocates may end up looking as extreme as the zoo says we are, and as inflexible as we accuse the zoo of being.  It’s tough to adhere to a higher standard of language and behavior when the odds are so stacked and the campaign so frustratingly long and the cost for the elephants so distressing.  Is it possible to rise above the fraught history with an intention of best results for all concerned, especially Chai, Bamboo and Watoto, and including even the zoo and Task Force?

“Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding”   –Mahatma Gandhi

“The end of war with myself and my thinking is the end of the war with you” — Byron Katie

It has been a long term struggle for elephant advocates, but I persist in the notion that we may well win better by aiming higher.

Featured image by C. Lagally of the Woodland Park Zoo Task Force.

About Jeanne Barrett

Jeanne Barrett has been teaching the Alexander Technique since 1987. She is a native of Seattle, and would consider her life well lived if she can help Chai, Bamboo and Watoto live more natural lives in an elephant sanctuary.

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