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Originally published Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Protecting Seattle’s aging elephants

What is best for Chai, Watoto and Bamboo, the three female elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo? A panel of experts is supposed to tell us.

Seattle Times Editorial

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AS the Woodland Park Zoo muses over the composition and agenda of a panel to study the future of the zoo’s three elephants, Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw knows what she wants to see.

Bagshaw is looking for the zoo to recruit an independent team of scientific experts who know what is best for the elephants, “people who really know what they are talking about.” The outside review needs that kind of rigor.

The zoo has said it will organize a review to look at the welfare and future of its elephants. The action follows both a citizen petition and a two-part Seattle Times series, “Glamour Beasts,” a searing look at the status of elephants in zoos across America.

The zoo has said a former zoo board member and chair, Jan Hendrickson, will lead the panel. The membership and the range of topics to be studied have yet to be determined.

Bagshaw wants detailed information and guidance, not just strong opinions, about keeping elephants in captivity and the best practices nationally and internationally for their care and maintenance. She is also looking for information about conservation and threats to elephants in the wild.

The zoo board operates independently from the city, but Bagshaw explains the city’s general fund contribution to the zoo’s operating budget was $6.5 million for 2012, or about 22 percent of the zoo’s $30 million annual budget. A King County parks levy put in $3.7 million for 2011.

The Times series painted a glum future for Chai, Watoto and Bamboo at the zoo. Relentless and failed efforts to breed Chai and the maladies of confinement and aging take their toll on the large mammals.

Options include sanctuaries, such the three sanctuaries in Northern California operated by Performing Animal Welfare Society. The Toronto zoo opted to close its zoo exhibit and send its elephants to PAWS, with all costs borne by the sanctuary and other donations.

Many zoos have closed, are ending or discussing closure of their elephant exhibits.

Let Chai, Watoto and Bamboo spend the rest of their lives in open space with three new Canadian friends, Thika, Toka and Iringa.

Bagshaw is asking the right questions to help point the Woodland Park Zoo and its nascent panel toward the broadest range of information gathering about the welfare of elephants in zoos and other options.

The answer and the opportunity may well be the elephants thriving on 2,300 acres in San Andreas, Calif., called ARK 2000, a PAWS sanctuary.

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