I was disappointed to read Danny Westneat’s recent article in The Seattle Times, “Elephant ‘extremists’ in Seattle now feeling vindicated,” in which he declared that “Keeping elephants in captivity clearly isn’t working.” His opinions were based on a recent series by reporter Michael Berens, “Glamour Beasts,” which ran in the Seattle Times on Dec. 9 and 10. To declare the Woodland Park Zoo’s longstanding elephant program a failure is short-sighted and ignores what zoos do best — conservation and education.
The sad reality is that there are increasingly few safe havens left for elephants in the wild. The Asian elephant is now listed as an endangered species, and the well-documented decimation of hundreds of African elephants by poachers inside a national park in the Republic of Cameroon in 2012 alone is a tragic example of a disturbing trend.
Zoos enable people to see and experience these majestic animals up close and nurture a compassion for them in the wild. There is something both powerful and transforming when an elephant looks you in the eye and snakes its enormous trunk in your direction. In the words of Jane Goodall, “Only when we understand can we care, and only when we care will we help.”
It is clear from the positive reaction to the births of Hansa at the Woodland Park Zoo in 2000 and Lily at the Portland Zoo in 2012 that a large segment of the public celebrates and cherishes every baby elephant that is born in captivity. Though Hansa’s death in 2007 was a tragedy, it had nothing to do with the care she was getting. She died from a rare strain of the herpes virus that had not been known to affect baby elephants before. But her short life nevertheless brought great joy to our lives and to us as a society.
I had my own experience getting to know the Woodland Park Zoo elephants and keepers when I wrote the children’s book, “Hansa, the True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby,” in 2002. Since then, I have stayed in touch with the elephant keepers and visit the exhibit to get updates on the latest activities of the female herd so I can answer students’ questions during school presentations.
On a visit to the elephant exhibit last week, I watched the elephant keepers working with 43-year-old Watoto on an innovative physical therapy program during her morning bath to increase her flexibility, balance and core strength. The Woodland Park Zoo’s three female elephants are between the ages of 32 and 45 years old. With a life span similar to humans, this program is a great example of the type of proactive care that the elephant keepers are doing to provide for the herd’s long-term needs on a daily basis.
The Seattle City Council recently announced that it is going to convene a task force to study Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit and determine whether its three elephants would be better off in an elephant sanctuary out of the state. It is important to note that elephant sanctuaries are not open to the public. This study must include talking with the elephant keepers themselves, something that was never done by either Berens or Westneat.
One frequent visitor to the elephant barn over the last five years is a young girl named Karina. She began visiting the elephants when she was 2. Karina wears a sweatshirt which reads, “Friends don’t let friends become extinct.” These powerful words from a child leaves me wondering, if we could no longer see elephants in zoos, would we stop thinking about them or caring what happens to them in the wild?
Islander Clare Hodgson Meeker is an award-winning author of 10 books and over 20 magazine articles for children, including the Smithsonian Notable Book “Lootas Little Wave Eater, An Orphaned Sea Otter’s Story”; “Hansa, The True Story of an Asian Elephant Baby.”