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Originally published Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Learn from the ‘Glamour Beasts’

Send the three Woodland Park Zoo elephants to a sanctuary and end the futile, invasive attempts to impregnate Chai.

Seattle Times Editorial

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The Seattle Times’ recent detailed and disturbing look at the lives and deaths of elephants on display in America’s zoo industry inspires strong conclusions.

For all of the risks faced by these exotic creatures in the wild, they are better off left to roam free. Capturing elephants, confining them to cramped spaces and contriving bizarre regimens to breed them do the animals no favor.

Showing them off to an adoring public is good for zoo-industry revenues — especially during the years a zoo is lucky enough to possess a baby elephant. Any link to claims of a greater educational value is a cruel stretch.

Reporter Michael Berens’ report, which began last Sunday, looked at the travels and travails of the 288 elephants remaining in 78 accredited U.S. zoos.

Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo is home to three aging elephants — one female East African bush elephant, Watoto; and two female Asian elephants, Bamboo and Chai.

Two points are clear. First, the zoo should never try to breed Chai again. The elephant lost a 6-1/2-year-old daughter, Hansa, to a pernicious virus that plagues young elephants in U.S. zoos.

Daughter is no coy term. Mothers and their female offspring spend their lives together in nature.

Chai was subsequently the victim — not too strong a word — of 112 attempts to artificially inseminate her. The rigors of evolving restraints and techniques are fully captured in Berens’ reporting.

Second, Woodland Park Zoo should get out of the elephant-display business. Send Watoto, Bamboo and Chai to one of the handful of sanctuaries that exist. Let them live out their lives with room to move at will across truly open spaces.

A spokesman for Woodland Park Zoo explains that officials were contemplating options for the park’s elephants before the series appeared. A decision point might come in the first quarter of 2013.

One choice under consideration is to house bull elephants with the intent to help with herd reproduction elsewhere. Another option still under review is to team with zoos in Portland and Tacoma to become a center of educational excellence for the study of elephants and other large mammals.

One decision that has been made, the spokesman confirms, is that no further attempts will be made to impregnate Chai, at least “not with what we have been doing.” The zoo might try again with some advancement in elephant reproductive techniques or science.

Give it a rest. The business of breeding elephants, displaying them and exploiting them as revenue drivers should end. The zoo industry’s arcane accreditation system seeks to punish and discredit any protesters, and brand them as radical.

Life in the wild is brutal and subject to all the natural vagaries, including disease. Poaching is a lethal hazard. The other reality, however, is a harsh, unnatural existence in captivity.

Confinement for large mammals with a physical and instinctual need for space insults their bodies and their minds. Grotesque reproductive drills and stunted lives for infants are no argument for continuing, literally, business as usual.

End the breeding efforts and ship the elephants to sanctuaries.

Advocates argue Woodland Park Zoo saves animals and their habitats through conservation leadership and engaging experiences, inspiring people to learn, care and act.

Zoos do lots of things well. They are a value and they are beloved, but they have to candidly acknowledge what does not work.


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