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September 2, 2014 at 5:22 AM

Times poll: 84 percent support elephant-exhibit closure

Elephants Chai and the late Watoto at the Woodland Park Zoo. (photo by Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

Elephants Chai and the late Watoto at the Woodland Park Zoo in 2012. (photo by Steve Ringman / Seattle Times)

The Seattle Times’ poll last week on the future of the Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit demonstrated overwhelming support for its closure – 84 percent — and perhaps even more telling, a high level of reader interest.

Nearly 5,500 people responded to the Times’ poll by 5 p.m. Friday, an indication of the way the death of 45-year-old Watoto has touched a chord with the public. Watoto collapsed sometime during the night of Aug. 22 and when she was discovered by keepers that morning, could not be righted. As her condition deteriorated zoo staff concluded the situation was hopeless; euthanasia followed.

The death occurred in the midst of a long-running debate over the zoo’s elephant exhibit, as activists call it inhumane and urge that it be closedwith the two surviving elephants sent to sanctuary. Zoo officials, meanwhile, have responded to criticism with plans to improve the elephant barn and acquire one or two more Asian elephants, to create a single-species herd.

Some 4,580 readers said the two elephants should go to sanctuary and the exhibit should be closed. Another 15 percent, or 802, favored keeping the elephants. About 1 percent, or 65, said they preferred other solutions.

Certainly the poll reflects a measure of self-selection – those who responded are those who care most deeply. But the heavy participation, largest of any blog-poll in the Times this summer, is an indication of the depth of public feeling.

So too are the 124 thoughtful comments posted by readers on both sides of the issue, which can be found in the Opinion Northwest comments section here. Supporters of the exhibit argue there is no evidence of mistreatment at the zoo, and that activists might better train their attention on saving elephants in the wild. But opponents say the cramped space and the Seattle climate are inherent problems that never can be resolved; one commenter, for instance, maintains the accommodations are “like cramming three people into a refrigerator and expecting them to stay there happily and comfortably for decades.”

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