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Originally published March 28, 2014 at 9:28 PM | Page modified March 29, 2014 at 3:28 PM

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Woodland Park Zoo to expand elephant program

Woodland Park Zoo intends to revamp its elephant exhibit and in the process move its only African elephant elsewhere and acquire a female Asian elephant.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Woodland Park Zoo intends to spend up to $3 million to expand its elephant program and swap its only African female for a new Asian female. The revamping of the aging, landlocked exhibit is planned even as mounting research shows that captivity is harmful to the world’s largest and most humanlike land mammals.

The zoo currently houses two female Asian elephants, Chai, 35, and Bamboo, 47, and a female African, Watoto, 45, inside a 1989-era building that is divided into four sections of confinement, the largest measuring about 23 by 38 feet. The trio roam on about an acre of open space.

The zoo has long been criticized by its peers for mixing Asian and African species, something that does not occur in the wild. Watoto is often combative with Bamboo, zoo records show, which has resulted in daily segregation that further restricts the elephants’ movements.

Zookeepers hope to transfer Watoto by the end of the year, Deborah Jensen, zoo president and CEO, said. A destination has not been determined.

After Watoto’s departure, zoo officials hope to obtain an Asian female from another zoo, Jensen said. However, the acquisition is not guaranteed and, if it occurs, will likely involve an older, nonreproductive female, she said.

Zookeepers will later weigh the possibility of obtaining a fourth elephant, she said, one that may be young enough to breed.

The zoo’s five-year elephant plan outlined on Friday includes improvements, representing the first major overhaul since 1989. In addition to changes in the barn, zookeepers plan to install timed feeders for night grazing, as well as outdoor rain shelters and heating.

Additionally, officials plan to expand their field partnerships with elephant-conservation groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society’s anti-poaching campaign.

Seattle activist Alyne Fortgang, who has monitored the zoo’s elephant program for nearly a decade, criticized the expansion as a ploy to breed and generate revenue with a baby elephant.

“The suffering of elephants in Asia and Africa does not justify their suffering here,” she said. “Zoo officials are so entrenched in the 19th century. They just won’t look forward. Instead, they are digging deeper into the past.”

Fortgang filed a public-records lawsuit against the zoo earlier this year that accuses administrators of failure to disclose financial records. The suit is pending. About a third of the money in the zoo’s annual $30 million budget comes from the city of Seattle.

Many of the planned improvements are the byproduct of a six-month review by a task force last year convened in response to a Seattle Times series, Glamour Beasts, which found that elephants are dying out in America’s zoos.

The Times found that zoos have relied on elephants to boost admissions and revenue, but for every elephant born, on average, two others die.

The Times found that the zoo’s youngest female, Chai, endured 112 unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination. She gave birth in November 2000 after she was bred at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri.

But the calf, Hansa, died at age 6 from an infectious herpes virus known as EEHV. Zoo officials remain uncertain how the deadly disease was transmitted.

The 14-person task force was created by the zoo board of directors and dominated by zoo supporters. A majority of members recommended that the zoo create a multigeneration herd with an effective breeding program. A minority opinion stated that the exhibit should be improved but that the current elephants should be allowed to age out or retire to another facility.

An increasing number of research studies reveal that elephants live in tightly bonded matriarchal families, exhibit memory and possess surprising self-awareness, such as recognizing themselves in a mirror. They experience grief and love, pain and fear.

Woodland Park’s expansion plans come at time when the zoo industry is divided, sometimes bitterly, over the future of elephant captivity.

Nationally, at least 26 zoos have closed or plan to phase out their elephant exhibits, including those in San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago and New York.

Nonetheless, the industry’s trade group, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), has aggressively promoted breeding efforts to counteract declines in captive elephant populations.

In late December 2012, when the Times’ series was published, 288 elephants remained inside 78 U.S. accredited zoos. Last year, as U.S. zoos implemented better tools to fight disease, the number of elephant births and deaths have been about even, according to data maintained Dan Koehl, a Swedish elephant expert.

The most recent U.S. elephant death occurred earlier this month and involved a 44-year-old African female, Ladybird, at the Greenville Zoo in South Carolina.

After suffering a bout of colic, which was linked to a “change in weather,” zoo officials reported, she was found motionless on the barn floor and later euthanized.

Michael J. Berens: 206-464-2288 or

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