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Sanctuary Or Zoo: Seattle Elephant Lovers Debate Their Case

This story begins at Amboseli National Park in Kenya in 1987. A young woman named Nancy Hawkes, who would later become general curator at the Woodland Park Zoo, was there researching animal behavior.

She climbed into her tent for the night and stared up at the electric stars through the mosquito net ceiling. 

Then she sensed something stir outside her tent. 

She looked up, "and there was this eye looking down at me with these big eyelashes and the full moon behind it, and it was just awesome,” she said.

Hawkes wondered if she was dreaming. That’s when she heard the elephant purr like a cat.

"They communicate by these infrasonic sounds through the ground," she said. "You can feel the vibrations."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Nancy Hawkes believes if zoos lose elephants, the world could lose elephants. She says many elephant researchers at places like Kenya's Amboseli National Park receive funding from zoos.", "fid": "114984", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201501/Nancy_Hawkes.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]Hawkes' life changed at that moment. She decided she would work with zoos to bring elephants to people so they could meet these incredible creatures, and then, hopefully, become advocates for their lives in the wild.

Hawkes firmly believes that captive elephants belong in zoos – not sanctuaries. The Woodland Park Zoo announced in November that remaining elephants Bamboo and Chai would be moved to another zoo. The Seattle zoo said that after long consideration, it decided the two elephants needed to be with a bigger herd.

The zoo has found itself up against elephant advocates who say a sanctuary would be better than a zoo. Give Chai and Bamboo an easy place to live out their lives, they say. Even Mayor Ed Murray and several city councilmembers joined the pro-sanctuary side, asking the zoo to reconsider – and to present its re-homing plans by Feb. 27.  

Zoo officials aren’t budging. In a reply to city lawmakers, they implied that sanctuaries are disease-ridden and financially unstable.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lisa Kane wants to see elephants Bamboo and Chai moved to a sanctuary. ", "fid": "114983", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201501/Lisa_Kane.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

Helping lead the pro-sanctuary side is Lisa Kane. Fifteen years after Hawkes’ elephant encounter, Kane also visited Amboseli National Park in Kenya. She had an equally profound experience – but left with a different message.

Kane had already made a name for herself as an animal rights lawyer. She had helped spring a couple of elephants that spent their winters chained up in a small room in a Madison, Wisconsin, zoo. And she had visited elephant exhibits all over the world.

But she wasn’t prepared for the sight of around a hundred elephants playing and bathing in the swamp fed by the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro.

"I had never seen this, where elephants are living clearly with intention," she said. "They’ve got their own goals, their own ideas about what they’re going to be doing that day. They’ve got their little ones with them, their cousins or their best friends or whatever, and they are living with purpose."

When Kane moved to Seattle, she offered to help Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, and independent group critical of the zoo’s treatment of elephants.

Slowly, the group’s message has gained momentum with the public. It's taken a long time. Watoto died in 2014. Chai and Bamboo sometimes rock back and forth like an autistic child --"a sign of stress," Kane said.

"Now we’re talking about where are they going to die?" she continued. "Are they going die in a zoo, after more of this monotonous living in a small space? Or are they going be in a warm, sunny, huge place, where the burning question of the day is, ‘Will I take a nap? Or will I go swim in this lake? Or will I go knock this tree down?’ Which is, by the way, a very elephant-y thing to do."

Back at the zoo, Hawkes said she has countless examples of kids who have been moved to action by the elephants under her care. She described a 9-year-old girl who has been coming to the zoo since she was an infant.

"According to her mom, she’s got like 500 elephants in her room. Any school assignment she's written ends up being about elephants,” Hawkes said. ”She really, really cares. She donates her allowance money to elephant conservation in the wild." 

Hawkes said that if zoos lose elephants, elephants will lose advocates like that 9-year-old.

So there you have it: Two women who found their life’s purpose at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Both want the best for elephants.

Yet when it comes to where to put Chai and Bamboo, they couldn’t be more different.