Searching For New Elephant Home Is ‘A Bit Of A Match.com’

Dec 18, 2014

Woodland Park Zoo officials are looking for a new home for their two remaining elephants.

Last month, they announced they would close their exhibit and send their two female Asian elephants, 35-year-old Chai and 47-year-old Bamboo, to another zoo to be part of a larger social herd.

“It’s going to be a bit of a match.com, just in terms of personalities,” said Nancy Hawkes, Woodland Park Zoo’s general curator. 

Animal rights activists have pushed for the elephants to be sent to a sanctuary rather than another zoo, but zoo officials have ruled that out. After all, there are currently 34 zoos in the U.S. that have Asian elephants, and 15 of them are looking to add more animals to their collections, Hawkes said.

The elephants have distinct personalities, and there is an art to deciding whether they will fit into another social group. But she said integration will be easier because they’re moving together.

Woodland Park Zoo General Curator Nancy Hawkes, with Bamboo the elephant in the background.
Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang

“We know these two girls really well and we will have lots of conversations about how they will fit into another herd,” she said.

Zoo officials have requirements for the elephants’ new home: It must have a social herd of Asian elephants, with no significant disease issues, and it must use the “restricted contact” form of managing the elephants, which means there are barriers between keepers and elephants. They will also look at the leadership, governance, financial stability and standards of animal care of any potential new home.

And number one on their list of musts: That the institution be an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Of the 15 zoos looking to acquire Asian elephants, some may not take two, which narrows the list. But according to Hawkes, there are three to five good options out there.

“These elephants are going to get great care and have a great life. They have here and they will at wherever we find their new home,” Hawkes said.

The Woodland Park Zoo has had elephants on exhibit since 1921. The elephant herd has been shrinking since 2007, when Chai’s 6-year-old daughter Hansa died of a Herpes virus. This year, the zoo’s only African elephant, Watoto, had to be euthanized after she collapsed and couldn’t stand up.

Zoo officials had hoped to build the herd here. They had aggressively tried to breed Chai, but stopped after realizing her fertility was impaired. They also tried to acquire Asian elephants from other zoos, but without success.

Sanctuary Movement

Critics of the zoo are pushing to send the elephants to a sanctuary where they can live out their lives in a more spacious, natural setting.

Elephant advocates went to City Hall this week, singing Christmas carols with re-worked lyrics.

“Let them go, so tired and weary, send them to a sanctuary,” they sang, to the tune of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

Sanctuary supporters cheered the zoo’s announcement last month that it would close the elephant exhibit. Now they are want Chai and Bamboo sent to the 2,300-acre wildlife sanctuary in California run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS.

Elephants “are family oriented, they travel … great distances, they need space, and captivity just doesn’t provide that for them,” said Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. “They don’t thrive, they physically and psychologically suffer.”

The group has a growing list of powerful allies. The Seattle Times has repeatedly editorialized about the elephants’ need for more space. At City Hall, Mayor Ed Murray and several city councilmembers have also spoken out in favor of sanctuary.

At a public event in October, Murray said he made his opinion known to the zoo’s board of directors.

“It’s tough, there is really strong disagreement in the discussions I have had with zoo board members,” he said. “Politics aside, I think the science indicates that those elephants shouldn’t be there.”

Although the city provides about one third of the zoo’s funding, it has no jurisdiction or operational control over the zoo. “Ultimately, it is going to be the zoo’s decision,” Murray said.

Sanctuary advocates want the city to use that funding as leverage. Murray acknowledged there are “levers we could pull” as a city, but that it was too early to have those conversations.

But the zoo has a philosophical difference with sanctuaries. Sanctuaries, Hawkes said, have done a good job rescuing sick or needy elephants. But the zoo believes that Chai and Bamboo have a different role. 

“Our mission is to continue to educate people about elephants and about what is happening with them all over the world,” Hawkes said. “There are 96 elephants are being killed every day, and we want our two elephants to continue to tell that story to the public.”

Sanctuary advocates dispute those claims, arguing that zoos have limited impact on how people view elephant conservation.

The zoo is likely to make its decision on the elephants’ future home by spring of next year.