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Originally published December 18, 2012 at 7:55 PM | Page modified December 19, 2012 at 11:58 AM

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Task force to take closer look at Woodland Park's elephants

Woodland Park Zoo's elephant exhibit will be scrutinized by a panel of experts as part of a task force requested by Seattle City Council members who said they are concerned about the welfare and future of the zoo's three aging elephants.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Woodland Park Zoo's elephant exhibit will be scrutinized by a panel of experts as part of a task force requested by Seattle City Council members who said they are concerned about the welfare and future of the zoo's three aging elephants.

The inquiry was sparked by a citizen petition, signed by 7,500 people, as well as thousands of emails calling for an investigation after a Seattle Times two-part series, "Glamour Beasts," which revealed that elephants are dying out in America's accredited zoos.

The zoo industry has claimed for decades that elephants are thriving inside America's zoos. But The Times found that for every elephant born, on average two others die. Just 288 elephants are left inside 78 accredited U.S. zoos.

In a desperate race to make more baby elephants, The Times reported, Woodland Park has tried to artificially inseminate one of its Asian elephants, Chai, at least 112 times.

"We want to know what is best for these animals from a zoo perspective and from a conservation perspective," City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said.

Bagshaw recently met with representatives of the Woodland Park Zoological Society, the board that oversees zoo operations. The board readily agreed to create a task force to review elephant care. Once the review is completed, a report will be sent to council members, said task force chairwoman Jan Hendrickson, a former board member and managing partner of a local venture-capital firm. Seattle's task force represents the most recent push by a city government to examine the financial and ethical toll of elephant captivity.

Earlier this year, City Council members in Toronto voted to shutdown their accredited zoo's elephant exhibit. The zoo's three female African elephants — Thika, Toka and Iringa — are expected to be sent to a 2,300-acre sanctuary in Northern California.

The nonprofit sanctuary, called the Performing Animal Welfare Society, accepts unwanted or retired elephants from zoos or circuses. The sanctuary covers all expenses, primarily through donations. For instance, Bob Barker, a former game-show host, is footing the bill to move the Toronto elephants by cargo plane.

At the sanctuary, eight elephants are segregated by species and sex to prevent breeding, said Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy.

Since the early 1990s, at least 22 zoos — including those in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco — have closed their elephant exhibits or said they plan to do so. Some retired their elephants to PAWS or a second sanctuary, operated by another nonprofit group, in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Both sanctuaries oppose elephant captivity in zoos or circuses — or captivity of any kind. Generally, sanctuaries are not open to the public and represent a place for elephants to live out their last days.

But the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an industry trade group that accredits zoos, is critical of sanctuaries because owners refuse to breed more elephants. Consequently, AZA officials stripped the Toronto Zoo of its accreditation for two years because of the City Council's decision to send the elephants to a sanctuary.

Despite the AZA's tough tactics, a goal for the task force, Bagshaw said, is to study whether Woodland Park's three elephants would be better off in a sanctuary.

Bagshaw said she plans to tour the PAWS sanctuary, located in the San Andreas foothills, next year.

"I want to see what the conditions are like there," she said. "I'd like to know if our elephants would be better off there."

Woodland Park houses three elephants: Chai, 33; Watoto, 43; and Bamboo, 46.

Unlike Toronto city officials, Seattle council members have little control over day-to-day zoo operations.

In 2001, the Seattle council turned over management of the zoo to the nonprofit Woodland Park Zoological Society. Seattle provides about one-third of the zoo's annual $30 million budget. Zoo admissions, fees and donations cover other expenses.

Michael Berens: mberens@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2288

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