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'Not An Easy Decision': Seattle Zoo Sends Its Elephants Away

Seattle’s elephants are leaving town to join another herd.

The Woodland Park Zoo announced on Wednesday that it will close its elephant exhibit and send its only two elephants, Chai and Bamboo, to another zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo CEO Deborah Jensen said this is an issue they have been grappling with for about two years.

Elephants are social animals, and they are happiest in a herd of at least three. But the zoo now only has two Asian elephants – 47-year-old Bamboo, who is elderly by zoo standards, and 35-year-old Chai. A third elephant, Watoto, had to be euthanized earlier this year.

According to Jensen, the zoo has unsuccessfully tried to acquire other elephants to boost its herd. On Tuesday evening, the Woodland Park Zoo board of directors decided the elephants should join a herd elsewhere.

"This has not been an easy decision; it’s not one we make with happiness,” Jensen said. “We are actually disappointed that we are not able to grow the elephant herd here at the Woodland Park Zoo."

No decision has been made on where the elephants will go, she said. There are 34 zoos in the U.S. that have Asian elephant programs.

The elephants are one of the biggest draws at the Woodland Park Zoo, but they have become increasingly controversial.

Animal rights activists have argued for years that the elephant enclosure at the Seattle zoo is too small for the big animals.

Alyne Fortgang with Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants said she is happy the zoo is acknowledging it can’t adequately provide for the elephants' needs. But sending them to another zoo is not the solution.

"The elephants need to go to sanctuary,” Fortgang said. “They have given up their entire lives since they were taken from their mothers as babies. It’s time to take them off exhibit and give them a more natural and normal setting.”

Transferring the elephants to a sanctuary is not an option, Jensen said. The zoo wants the elephants to go to another accredited zoo. Zoos share a mission of educating people about animals and conservation – and using the animals as ambassadors for that message. That is not the mission of sanctuaries.

Zoo officials said the move will likely happen sometime next year, after the weather warms up.

A careful transition is planned, according to Nancy Hawkes, general curator for the zoo. Staff from the new facility will spend time in Seattle getting to know the elephants and their routines. Woodland Park Zoo staff will accompany the elephants to the new facility, and some will stay for a time to help them acclimate.

Hawkes said the animals will be given to the new facility as a loan, not a permanent transfer, so Woodland Park Zoo will stay involved in the elephants’ lives.

At the zoo on Wednesday, dad Ryan Walker said he comes to the zoo about once a month with his five kids. He said the elephants are one of their favorite exhibits.

“We would like to keep the elephants here,” he said. “We would be sad if the elephants left."

Zoo officials said they haven’t decided what they will do with the elephant enclosure. It would likely be transformed into another Asian or Southeast Asian animal exhibit.

They said they don’t expect the departure of the elephants to have any impact on zoo revenues.

Year started with KUOW: 2005