On November 1, 2013, elephant welfare advocates will partner with Meaningful Movies (MM) in Wallingford, to present Urban Elephant, an amazing evening of documentary shorts that ask the question, “Can three 8,300-pound elephants be ‘happy and healthy’ living at Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ)?” To help answer that question, MM will show clips from five documentary films, including Echo of the Elephants, about the lives of elephants in the wild; Urban Elephant: Shirley’s Story, about an elephant released from a zoo into a sanctuary; and Spaceless in Seattle, about WPZ’s three female elephants, Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai.
Elephant welfare advocates have repeatedly protested conditions for elephants at WPZ, and have asked the zoo to release Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai to a sanctuary for a vastly better quality of life. WPZ has refused, saying that the elephants are “happy and healthy” just as they are, even though WPZ’s own medical records show that all three elephants suffer from serious, chronic, captivity-induced diseases. These include crippling arthritis and painful foot infections, the leading causes of death among captive elephants. These conditions are the result of decades of restrictive confinement on hard surfaces and in barn stalls so small that, for 16-17 hours a day for much of the year, Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai must stand, walk, or lie in their own waste.
WPZ’s medical records also show that all three elephants suffer from chronic infertility, which is virtually unknown in the wild, and from stereotypical behavior, such as repetitive swaying, “dancing”, and pacing, which is entirely unknown in the wild. Elephant experts say these stereotypical behaviors put unnatural stress on elephants’ feet and joints, exacerbate foot and joint problems, and are symptomatic of severe psychological distress from lack of space, exercise, companionship, and mental stimulation.
Why would WPZ, which calls itself a “World Class Zoo”, knowingly confine elephants in conditions that cause them so much suffering? WPZ says that, even with limited space for elephants, it needs to keep elephants at the zoo to “conserve” them because they’re threatened in the wild, and so that people can see them and be inspired to act to conserve them in the wild. However, there is no evidence that people who see elephants in a zoo then take action to conserve them in the wild, and scientists agree that the best place to conserve elephants and other wild animals is in their native habitats, not in a zoo.
So given all this, why would WPZ spend $780,000 per year, much of it in public tax dollars, to “conserve” three elephants at the zoo when, for about $440,000 per year, it could fully fund the conservation of more than 1,200 elephants in their native habitat in Amboseli National Park, Kenya?
The answer, say elephant welfare advocates, is money. WPZ is a business, it wants to make money, and it believes that having elephants brings in money, and having a baby elephant brings in even more money. Indeed, when Chai gave birth to Hansa in 2000, WPZ employees proposed naming the calf “Cash Cow” because zoo receipts went up 171% after she was put on display (Ref: 1, 2). Perhaps not surprisingly, WPZ has been relentless in trying to get Chai pregnant so she will produce more baby elephants, including by trucking her half way across the country on a breeding loan and artificially inseminating her 112 times (Ref.)
Elephant welfare advocates say this is abusive, it needs to stop, and WPZ needs to follow the lead of other urban zoos, including those in San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and Anchorage, that have released their elephants to a sanctuary, and release Bamboo, Watoto, and Chai to a sanctuary to greatly improve their quality of life.
To learn more about these issues, please come to Urban Elephant at MM on Friday, November 1 at 7:00 p.m. at Keystone Congregational Church, 5019 Keystone Place N., in Seattle. After the films, there will be a Q&A/discussion with Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants; Lisa Kane, J.D., author of Optimal Future for Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, and a leader in the release of captive elephants to sanctuary; Ken Moore, creator and producer of Spaceless in Seattle; and Nicole Meyer, Elephant Campaign Director for In Defense of Animals. We hope to see you there!