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Originally published Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at 9:02 PM

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Elephant 'extremists' in Seattle now feeling vindicated

Two Seattle women who have long protested the treatment of zoo elephants and were disparaged for doing so are now feeling better about their efforts.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Having known Nancy Pennington for years, I know that the only thing "extreme"... MORE
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They were dubbed troublemakers, fanatics, and, then, in a word settled on by a PR effort to disparage them, "extremists."

What they are being called today, though, is "right."

"A decade ago we were extremists," says Alyne Fortgang, of north Ballard. "But the extreme has a way of becoming mainstream."

Fortgang, 61, and her co-agitator Nancy Pennington, 73, of West Seattle, are the co-founders of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. Together they have spoken out the loudest, if not the longest, about problems with the way the local zoo keeps and attempts to breed elephants.

After Seattle Times stories this week showed that 50 years worth of captive breeding of elephants in American zoos has been a long-term failure, the pair say they feel vindicated.

"I believe the public eventually will say 'whoa' about what's going on at the zoo," Fortgang said. "It won't happen today, or tomorrow. But the day is coming."

Why not today?

Keeping elephants in captivity clearly isn't working. This is true regardless of how you feel about animal rights or welfare.

As Seattle Times reporter Michael Berens documented, getting elephants to reproduce in captivity is so problematic that zoo elephants are going extinct. For each of the past 50 years, zoo births have never exceeded deaths. For each one born, two die. So even if you have no qualms about it, it isn't succeeding.

Locally, the story is cringe-worthy. Berens revealed that Woodland Park Zoo has artificially inseminated the elephant Chai 112 times without a birth. Then there's a sure sign the zoos know they have a problem. They are resorting to spin and PR campaigns to attack their critics.

Berens described one: When the Association of Zoos and Aquariums decided that, despite a soaring elephant death toll, they were going to "speak and act with a unified voice" in claiming the elephants were thriving. Central to the plan was marginalizing critics of elephant captivity as "extremists."

It wasn't long before that was put into action here. A member of the Woodland Park Zoo board used that exact phrasing in a letter to the Seattle City Council, which Fortgang shared with me. It claimed activists here were essentially a front for an "organized, well-funded movement by animal rights extremist groups" with the sole mission to "attack zoos."

One councilman, Richard Conlin, fired back. He scolded the zoo for using "the pejorative 'extremist' " as a blunt instrument to beat down legitimate questions.

"We're not whackos," Pennington says. "That much should now be clear."

They were certainly possessed, though.

Pennington said either she or Fortgang has been to every zoo board meeting since 2006. They have visited the elephant exhibit 150 times or more. They also regularly protest at the zoo's "Jungle Party" fundraiser, handing out tote bags that read "I Support Free-Roaming Elephants," or, one year, flying a banner over the grounds that said: "Elephants Suffer in Zoos."

Still, Fortgang said she became convinced by years of watchdogging that the staff cares deeply about the elephants. Both also speak highly of the zoo's conservation efforts. But their sense is that the institution is so wrapped up in "zoo ego" — that without elephants, you're not a real zoo — that it has become blinded.

Some zoos have already closed their elephant exhibits. It's now becoming obvious, or ought to be, that confining the "glamour beasts" in small pens and breeding them just doesn't work. It's time to let them go (not in Phinney Ridge, but to a sanctuary.)

Of course that kind of thinking may place the entire zoo at risk. Elephants are not the only animals bobbing or pacing their cages psychotically. There's a paradox to every zoo. The carnivallike display supports all the good conservation work. But the raised awareness of animals in the wild undermines the idea of confining them at all.

"I think they're worried about that slippery slope — that once the elephants go, what's next?" Fortgang said.

What do the people think? It's always been a given that we love our zoo. But it also wouldn't shock if opinion is changing to the point that the zoo really does face an existential crisis.

I mean, who could have guessed a decade ago that we would legalize both pot and gay marriage? Anyone saying such a thing would surely have been called an extremist.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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