Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo intends to send its two remaining elephants to an accredited zoo to live in a larger social group. CEO Deborah Jensen said Wednesday that a plan to expand the Seattle elephant exhibit wasn’t feasible because of the few elephants available. She said the zoo’s board of directors made the decision Tuesday night to phase out its elephant program.
“We remain committed to putting the welfare of our elephants first,” said Jensen at a news conference at the zoo. The zoo has faced intense criticism over its small, 1989 elephant exhibit where three elephants were on display on about an acre of land and sometimes left outside without shelter.
That criticism intensified following the death in August of the zoo’s only African elephant, Watoto, who had been on display for more than four decades.
But the decision to relocate the two remaining Asian elephants, Chai, 35, and Bamboo, 47, won’t end the controversy.
Elephant activists called on the zoo to send the two to a wildlife sanctuary and not another zoo where they would remain on display.
“They have earned the right to retire to a warm, sunny location where they can be on elephant time and do elephant things,” said Lisa Kane, a member of the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.
Jensen said the zoo convened a task force to review the elephant program, and ultimately determined it could not add any animals in the near future.
“Yet it remains important that Bamboo and Chai benefit from living with a social, multi-animal herd in a healthy environment. We believe this can be accomplished best by relocating them to another AZA accredited facility that is held to exemplary standards of care,” she said.
The elephants are expected to be moved next year.
About 284 elephants remain in accredited U.S. zoos. A Seattle Times investigation in 2012 found that for every elephant born in captivity, on average, two others die. The zoo industry has publicly maintained that elephants are “thriving” in captivity.