With three down and three meetings to go, the Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force, sat for an extra hour on June 26th to consider the type of report the members would provide back to the zoo from their monthly proceedings.
The Task Force members, who range in association from zoo board members to zoo donors, quite frankly have a tough job on their hands. They have no authority to direct the WPZ to release these elephants to sanctuary, but will either provide the zoo with a list of issues regarding elephants Chai, Watoto and Bamboo or provide recommendations on release or stay of the elephants. That outcome of the task force efforts is yet to be determined, but it’s clear the members are running into some very hard questions.
Following a presentation by Deborah Jensen, President & CEO and Bruce Bohmke, Chief Operations Officer, of Woodland Park Zoo, Task Force co-chair Jay Manning asked if it is moral or ethical to keep highly social, intelligent, family-oriented and self-aware beings, such as elephants in a zoo at all.
The passionate response from Ms. Jensen was, for me, the most disturbing moment of the meeting. In effect, she proclaimed that it was inappropriate to ask the question of the morality of elephant captivity in zoos when some 15,000 elephants are held in horrific conditions in Thailand and around the world and often forced into hard labor or other abusive conditions. She felt that we should instead be asking how we are treating elephants on this planet.
Ms. Jensen’s claims are likely correct, that thousands of elephants are held in abusive, captive conditions worldwide, but her passionate call that we should avoid questioning or taking action to relieve the suffering of elephants in our own backyard is, what I call, the ‘age old cry of the openly public oppressor’ where the animal is on display but the suffering less obvious.
The idea that, just because we cannot fix the animal welfare violations in Thailand, that we shouldn’t consider or address animal welfare violations in Seattle, has been used many times by people or companies hoping to maintain the status quo.
Never has it been okay to shirk our responsibility to alleviate animal suffering just because we cannot address the suffering of all animals, everywhere.
Yet Jensen’s argument presumes that being on US soil somehow makes an elephant safer from abuse or neglect, and that as concerned citizens we will be so swayed by the troubling conditions for elephants overseas that we will not wish to get our hands dirty addressing issues of local elephants.
I do not believe this presumption is appropriate in Seattle. Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw told me that she received an overwhelming number of emails from residents calling for the elephants to go to sanctuary. Failure to act on behalf of Chai, Bamboo and Watoto and to move them to a sanctuary simply puts us in the same category of the people keeping elephants in social or space deprived environments elsewhere in the world.
So Mr. Manning’s question was not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary to fulfill his role as the Task Force co-chair in charge of considering the future of elephants in Seattle’s zoo. Fellow Task Force member Jeannie Nordstrom commented that her concern was with the welfare of “these three elephants”, and it was clear in the June 26th meeting discussions, that Manning and Nordstrom were not alone grappling with these issues of what is ethical in the treatment of captive elephants.
Yet, the complex nature of retiring elephants to a sanctuary will require some consensus and considerable collaboration from zoo supporters, animal advocates, city council and the Seattle public. I am hopeful that a Task Force willing to ask these hard questions will be able to identify a clear pathway through politics and logistics to send Chai, Watoto and Bamboo to sanctuary.