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Behind The Scenes, Seattle Officials Battle Over Zoo Elephants' Future

KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang
35 year old Chai browses for treats thrown by one of her keepers. The Woodland Park Zoo is expected to announce the new home for Chai and 47 year old Bamboo in early March.

As the Woodland Park Zoo searches for a new home for its two Asian elephants, newly obtained public documents reveal an extensive behind-the-scenes campaign by city officials to pressure the zoo to send the elephants to a sanctuary.Back in November,the zoo announced it was closing the elephant exhibitand would send its elephants to another zoo. Zoo officials have said they are likely to reveal the elephant’s new home in early March.

But city officials, including several City Council members and Mayor Ed Murray, have been trying to push the zoo and its board to pursue the sanctuary option. The City Attorney’s Office has provided legal ammunition in the campaign. It also separately considered filing civil and criminal charges against the zoo in the recent death of its African elephant, Watoto.

Pressure From City Hall

The Woodland Park Zoo is located on city land and receives about one-third of its funding from Seattle and King County. But it is managed independently through a 20-year operating agreement with the city.

Last year, city officials began exploring whether the city had any legal ability to pressure the zoo over the future of its elephants.

At the center of those efforts was City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who was formerly the Chair of the City Council’s Parks and Seattle Center Committee.

Bagshaw asked City Attorney Pete Holmes for a legal opinion. She wanted to know whether the city had any legal authority over the zoo, including whether the city could dictate what should happen to the elephants, or whether it could withhold funding if the zoo didn’t find a better home for them.

Holmes’ office produced a six-page document, which concluded that if the city tried to withhold funding from the zoo in order to force a decision on the elephants, it would put the city in breach of contract and potentially invite a lawsuit from the zoo.

But, the opinion continued, the city was within its rights to condition any future funds — for example, future levy money or funds from the newly created Metropolitan Parks District — on what happens with the elephants.  

Shortly after, Bagshaw sent an email to the Woodland Park Zoo President Deborah Jensen, which began: “I know this is a prickly subject. We need to talk.”

Bagshaw acknowledged the zoo has final control over what happens to the elephants. “That said, here is what I want you and your board members to consider.”

The email then quotes the paragraph from the City Attorney’s legal opinion that suggests the city could condition future zoo funding on the “disposition of the elephants.”

Less than a month after that email, the zoo announced that was closing its elephant exhibit and would begin to search for a new home for Chai and Bamboo.

Zoo Or Sanctuary?

[asset-images[{"caption": "At a surprise press conference last November, Woodland Park Zoo President Deborah Jensen announced the zoo will close its elephant exhibit and transfer its two elephants to another zoo.", "fid": "115592", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201502/WPZDeborahJensen_cropped.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang"}]]The struggle between the zoo and City Hall centers on whether the elephants should be in a zoo or in a sanctuary.

When zoo officials announced they would close the elephant exhibit, they said they wanted to find a new home that would allow the elephants to be a part of a larger social herd. Their number one condition was that the institution be accredited by the AZA, or Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Placing Chai and Bamboo in another zoo would allow them to continue to spread the message about elephant conservation to zoo visitors.

But there are others who believe zoos cannot provide the space that elephants need. They have been pushing the zoo to send the elephants to a sanctuary where they can have more room to roam in a more natural setting and where they would no longer be on exhibit.

Bagshaw had been in touch with the president of PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, which runs a 2,300 acre sanctuary in California. PAWS had sent a letter to Bagshaw offering to open discussions on providing a home for Chai and Bamboo.

In January, Bagshaw’s office sent another letter to the zoo, this one signed by a total of five City Council members and the mayor. It asked that the elephants be transferred to a facility that is focused primarily on the welfare of the animals. “That may mean a GFAS-approved sanctuary, rather than an AZA-accredited zoo,” the letter said. GFAS stands for Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The letter also set out a series of conditions for the elephants’ new home, including that it provide more space for the elephants and that it be in a warmer, drier climate than Seattle.

The letter asked that the zoo report back to the city before making a final decision. It set a deadline of Friday, February 27, to be apprised of the zoo’s plans.

The zoo responded with a letter re-stating their guidelines and describing why the sanctuaries under consideration are not ideal. The zoo’s letter states a final decision would be made in early March.

All Eyes On The Zoo

The zoo is currently under scrutiny on many fronts.

If the zoo does not send the elephants to a sanctuary, zoo critics have already announced their intention to sue, claiming the zoo is in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

A Seattle-based legislator, Rep. Gerry Pollet,introduced a bill this yearthat would make the zoo subject to the state’s public disclosure and open meeting laws. That was after some members of the public and the news media were shut out of a recent zoo board meeting.

Pollet’s legislation failed to make it out of committee, but he is now lobbying the City Council  and the Mayor’s office to make city funding to the zoo contingent on the zoo’s adherence to those state laws.

The City Attorney’s Office has also acknowledged that it conducted an investigation into last year’s death of the zoo’s only African elephant, Watoto. Watoto had to be euthanized back in August after she collapsed and couldn’t get up.

Details about the investigation are unclear, as documents obtained from the City Attorney’s Office were heavily redacted. But in an email, Deputy Chief of Staff John Schochet acknowledged the office “considered all of our civil and criminal options in response to the elephant’s death and decided not to move forward with any criminal actions at this time.”

In response to this story, zoo officials issued a statement that said, in part: "We very much appreciate all of the interest and concern by the Mayor and members of the City Council about our evaluation process and the strict criteria we are following to make this important relocation decision."

"As we move closer to the relocation decision, we are doing our best to keep the City, our zoo family, members and the public informed of what it takes to ensure the best interests of Chai and Bamboo are our top priority," the statement said.

Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said in an interview that while she personally supports sending the elephants to a sanctuary, "reasonable minds can differ" on what is in the best interest of the elephants.

She expects the zoo will end up sending Chai and Bamboo to another zoo, rather than a sanctuary. "They think they are finding the situation that is in the best interest of the elephants, but that is something that we will continue to debate," Bagshaw said.

Year started with KUOW: 2005