SEATTLE––The most difficult winter campaign involving elephants since Hannibal Barca tried to march 38 elephants through the Alps in 218 B.C. to attack Rome may be ahead for the Northwest Animal Rights Network subsidiary Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants and the allied Community Coalition for Elephant Retirement, ironically because of an apparent victory.
Only three elephants survived Hannibal’s march. The Woodland Park Zoo, already down to two, soon will have none.
Yielding to more than five years of escalating activist, media, legal, and political pressure, Woodland Park Zoo chief executive officer Deborah Jensen on November 19, 2014 announced that Seattle will soon be without captive elephants for the first time since 1921.
Going to another zoo
But the two female Asian elephants currently displayed at the Woodland Park Zoo––35-year-old Chai and 47-year-old Bamboo––are to be “relocated together to an Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility that shares our commitment to animal health and welfare and conservation through education, and provides viewing access to the animals,” Jensen pledged.
That means another zoo, not the Performing Animal Welfare Society ARK 2000 sanctuary in in California, Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants’ longtime choice of destinations for Chai and Bamboo. The only other major elephant sanctuary in the U.S. is The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, more than 1,000 miles farther away. Both ARK 2000 and The Elephant Sanctuary are larger than the entire Woodland Park Zoo.
Several smaller sanctuaries also have elephants, but could offer Chai and Bamboo less by way of facilities and care than they have now in Seattle.
Appeal to mayor
Both the Performing Animal Welfare Society and The Elephant Sanctuary prevent resident elephants from being seen by visitors, except via web cameras.
“Once Bamboo and Chai leave Seattle, we will have no ability to control what happens to them. They could be moved again, and again,” says the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. “Moving elephants around like furniture is not uncommon in the zoo industry.”
Seattle mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle city council “have the authority to approve or disapprove the disposition of the animals in the zoo,” Friends of Woodland Park Zoo elephants adds. “We are asking that they use their authority to require that Bamboo and Chai go to a facility accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.”
Passing the buck
Agrees the Community Coalition for Elephant Retirement, “Sending them to another AZA facility without the space to care for them adequately would just be passing the buck.”
Said Murray, staying out of the fight over destinations for the moment, “The zoo board is making the right decision to find a new home for Woodland Park’s elephants, one with more habitat and an interesting social environment. I know this was not an easy decision for the zoo’s senior leaders and the dedicated staff who care for these animals. My concern remains that we must find the best possible facility for Chai and Bamboo.”
Murray did not say what he might consider “the best possible facility.”
Under Jensen’s plan, “Chai and Bamboo would be sent together to a zoo with a stable elephant collection that is free of disease and has an active conservation program that will highlight the threat to elephants in the wild,” wrote Seattle Times staff reporters Lynn Thompson and Michael J. Berens. “The elephant exhibit area would be used for display of other Asian animal species after review of the space and possible designs.”
Jensen has not suggested what other Asian animals might be added to the Woodland Park Zoo collection. A new Malaysian tiger exhibit is already under construction, due to open in May 2015. The zoo has been without tigers since the last resident tiger was euthanized in August 2012.
Two die for each birth
Thirty-four of the 223 zoos accredited by the American Zoo Association currently share 139 Asian elephants; 44 have among them 145 African elephants. Both the Asian and African zoo elephant populations are rapidly dwindling, from the combination of effects of age and reproductive failures.
About two U.S. zoo elephants die for every birth, and for every birth there are many dozens of failed reproductive attempts. Berens reported in 2012 that Chai, the younger of the two Woodland Park Zoo elephants, had experienced 112 unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination.“She gave birth in November 2000,” Berens recalled, “after she was bred at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri. But the calf, Hansa, died at age 6 from an infectious herpes virus. Zoo officials remain uncertain how the deadly disease was transmitted.”
Biggest zoo draw
Most of the elephants now in the U.S. were imported prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, meaning that most of the captive herd are more than 41 years of age.
Aware that the third of accredited zoos with elephants draw about two-thirds of the cumulative zoo audience of about 175 million, the American Zoo Association in 2009 announced plans to boost the U.S. zoo population to 532 within the next five years.
Achieving the projected increase would have required imports. But 11 African elephants imported from Swaziland in August 2003 were the only wild-caught elephants to reach the U.S. from abroad since 1973. The San Diego Zoo received seven of the Swaziland elephants. The Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa received the other four.
Divesting of elephants
“Woodland Park will become the 25th zoo in North America to either close or phase out its elephant exhibit,” recounted Thompson and Berens.
Most zoos divesting of elephants have transferred their elephants from aging and obsolescent housing to other AZA-accredited zoos, rather than spend the $10-$20 million that state-of-the-art elephant facilities typically cost now.
Some zoos, however, have sent elephants to the ARK 200 and the Elephant Sanctuary, in defiance of AZA policy. Among them are the Alaska Zoo, the Calgary Zoo, the Detroit Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Toronto Zoo.
The Woodland Park Zoo responded to Berens’ 2012 exposé by forming an Elephant Task Force, Thompson and Berens wrote, “that conducted a six-month review of the elephant program.”
The Elephant Task Force “recommended expansion of the elephant exhibit and creation of a multigenerational herd with an effective breeding program,” Thompson and Berens continued. In March 2014, “zoo officials announced that they would spend up to $3 million to expand the program and relocate Watoto,” the last African elephant in Seattle, “in order to build an all-Asian herd.”
That plan was scrapped just six months later.
“After several months of working to implement the recommendations of the Elephant Task Force,” said Jensen, “we have found that adding to the herd of our two aging elephants is not realistic in the foreseeable future.”
The turning point appears to have been the death of Watoto before she could be relocated. “The zoo euthanized the 45-year-old elephant on August 22, 2014 after keepers found her lying down in the elephant yard and unable to move to an upright position,” reported Aubrey Cohen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A necropsy found that Watoto’s death resulted from joint failure brought on by severe arthritis. Once down and unable to rise, she suffered further organ failures.
Born in Kenya circa 1969-1970, Watoto came to the Woodland Park Zoo in 1971.
Watoto’s death intensified criticism of the Woodland Park Zoo elephant exhibit, including from David Hancocks, the Woodland Park Zoo director from 1976 to 1984.
“Like every other zoo elephant, Watoto should never have been abducted from her mother, and never suffered the pain and indignities that is so common among zoo elephants,” wrote Hancocks. “We can only be grateful she has been spared the anxiety of having to move to another zoo, as the Woodland Park Zoo had intended, although it is true there are other zoos who could have offered her better conditions.
“It was always deeply frustrating when I served as director,” Hancocks continued, “that I was thwarted by city hall to search for a better home for the elephants. My suggestion to move them to a place with more space and a better climate was met with official and public hostility. I did quietly insure there was no elephant exhibit in the Zoo’s Long Range Plan, adopted by City Council in 1976, in the hope that during the life of the plan the public’s attitude would shift, and elephants could enjoy a better home. But after eight years I resigned, frustrated at not being able to make progress on this issue.”
The present Woodland Park Zoo elephant exhibit, built in 1989, includes one of the first “protected contact” elephant houses in the U.S., and the elephant yard, including about an acre of meandering trails through varied habitat, was considered state-of-the-art at the time. But the times and zoo standards have changed.
“In September 2014,” Thompson and Berens noted, “the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service faulted the zoo for sometimes leaving one of the two remaining elephants outdoors with no access to shelter.”
The story behind the story was the behavior of Bamboo, the elder of the Woodland Park Zoo elephants, imported from Thailand in 1967.
Conflicting with Chai’s now deceased daughter Hansa, Bamboo was transferred in mid-2005 to the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, which has successfully kept many other elephants of difficult disposition and history. “But the other elephants in Tacoma didn’t accept Bamboo, and the elephant returned to Seattle in June 2006,” summarized Post-Intelligencer reporter Kathy Mulady.
Afterward Bamboo was mostly kept apart from the other Woodland Park elephants––which meant that bringing them all inside at once was difficult.
The Northwest Animal Rights Network, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and individual activists Mary Sebek and Nancy Farnam alleged in a series of unsuccessful lawsuits that the Woodland Park Zoo violated the federal Endangered Species Act and Washington state Environmental Policy Act by “failing to provide Bamboo space for roaming, foraging and bonding with other elephants,” summarized Mulady.
Opened in 1899, the Woodland Park Zoo acquired elephants for the first time in 1921, after several years of unsuccessful efforts to find elephants it could afford to buy. Among the elephants the zoo initially could not afford was Ned, better known as Tusko. Imported from a Thai logging camp as a baby in 1898, Tusko was exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest by the Al G. Barnes Circus, ancestral to the Carson & Barnes Circus of today.
Growing into the biggest elephant in captivity, Tusko on May 17, 1922 bolted from the circus in Sedro-Wooley, Washington, then about two hour’s drive north of Seattle.
Allegedly responding to a beating, Tusko “tossed his handler aside (breaking several of the man’s ribs in the process) and lit out for the wide open spaces,” recounted Finn J.D. John for Offbeat Oregon.com. “He overturned a number of cars, knocked a few buildings off their foundations, and caused a mass panic in a Sedro-Wooley dance hall. By the time the circus crew caught up with him, he’d carved a 30-mile trail of destruction through the northern Washington countryside, demolishing a chicken coop and disrupting a lumber camp. His handlers found him stuck between two angled boxcars, so he was easily recaptured. Circus people then followed his trail of destruction through the countryside with a suitcase full of money, indemnifying anyone and everyone they thought might sue them.”
Auctioned for $200
The rampage increased Tusko’s exhibition value for a time, but in 1931 the A.G. Barnes Circus sold him to showman Al Painter, who displayed him at at Lotus Isle, a short-lived theme park located near Portland, Oregon.
“Tusko was noticeably crotchety most of the time,” according to Finn J.D. John, “and when early aviator Tex Rankin flew low over Lotus Isle in his biplane one day, Tusko spooked, breaking his chains and going on a short but panicky rampage that destroyed several of Lotus Isle’s Moorish-style buildings.”
Sending Tusko to the Oregon State Fair, Painter absconded. Auctioned off for $200 as abandoned property, Tusko was trucked back to Portland and exhibited in a tin shed on the waterfront. But his purchasers lost money on the venture.
After the Portland Zoo refused to accept Tusko as a donation, recounted Finn J.D. John, “His handlers decided he needed to retire to a nice city zoo, and they picked Seattle. They launched an elaborate con: They were going to ‘execute’ him. They even advertised in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for a big-game hunter to be their trigger man. It worked. The city rallied; school children broke open piggy banks; the mayor made a speech. A few weeks later, Tusko moved into his new digs at the Woodland Park Zoo.
“He died about a year later at the youthful (for an elephant) age of 42,” John finished. “The official cause of death was a blood clot in his heart, but one of his old handlers later told the Oregonian he’d developed debilitating arthritis and had been euthanized with “the black bottle” — that is, poison.”
George Washington “Slim” Lewis
Contradicting the contemporary report that John summarized, David Lewis, son of Tusko’s trainer/handler, George Washington “Slim” Lewis, e-mailed to ANIMALS 24-7 in March 2016 that, “Tusko was not ‘euthanized’ as [the John] article suggests. My father was with him when he passed on June 10, 1934. He did die of a blood clot, but he passed away peacefully while he held my father’s hand.
“That was a very tragic day for my father,” Lewis continued. “He had spent a lot of time and effort providing a more humane existence for Tusko, removing the many chains they had placed on him. One chain running across his back was sunken deep into his skin. Dad removed the chain and placed salve on the wounds, which eventually healed. He was determined to provide as much ‘quality of life’ as he could for an elephant he truly loved. Tusko instinctively knew he was being cared for.
“At one time there was a painting of my father sitting on Tusko at the Portland Zoo,” Lewis added. “When they razed the elephant visitors center, they returned the painting to the Lewis family. Tusko died on my father’s 24th birthday” June 10, 1935. Any time my father would relate the story to others, he would start to cry, up until his death at the age of 70.
“If you have any further questions regarding the events surrounding Tusko,” Lewis finished, “you can contact me directly, or review my father’s book I Loved Rogues, by George W. ‘Slim’ Lewis.”
“Vivid example of inhumanity”
Editorialized the Portland Journal, “He was a vivid example of inhumanity. He was the product of the jungle. He belonged to the jungle. And there could be no place for him in civilization. To keep him as he was kept, by chains, hobbles, enclosures, and other implements of force and tyranny, was cruelty, brutality, inhumanity. He was untamed and untamable. He had a right to resist fetters and shackles. In his own heaven, if elephants have a Valhalla, Tusko is back in the jungle, entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Please donate to support our work: http://www.animals24-7.org/donate/