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Originally published August 28, 2013 at 8:24 PM | Page modified August 28, 2013 at 8:27 PM

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Experts suggest changes for zoo’s elephants

A report from a panel of animal experts says that Woodland Park Zoo, although generally providing excellent care for its three elephants, could improve conditions by letting them have free contact with each other and converting some concrete floors to sand.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Woodland Park Zoo could improve conditions of captivity for its three elephants by allowing them to have free contact with each other and replacing some concrete floors with sand, a panel of animal experts recommended Wednesday.

Overall, the zoo provides excellent care for its elephants, according to the 41-page report.

The six-member panel, chaired by Bryan Slinker, a zoo-board member, veterinarian and dean at Washington State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, shared its findings Wednesday evening with a 15-member task force that is examining the future of the zoo’s elephant exhibit.

The inquiry was sparked by a citizen petition to the zoo, 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 national 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 were left inside 78 accredited U.S. zoos.

The Times reported that zoo keepers have tried to artificially inseminate one of its Asian elephants, Chai, at least 112 times, based on medical records and staff logs.

Zoo officials said they have no plans for further insemination attempts.

Several local and national animal-advocacy groups have raised concerns that the task force, which is heavily seeded with current and former zoo-board members as well as financial supporters, may have conflicts of interest.

However, task-force hearings are open to the public and videos of past meetings are archived at a website (www.elephanttaskforce.org).

The expert panel’s report highlighted two key areas: the breeding program and day-to-day care.

Two of the zoo’s elephants, Watoto, 44, and Bamboo, 47, have benign uterine tumors, in addition to their age, that preclude pregnancy.

Chai, 34, may be able to reproduce for a few more years, but artificial insemination should be abandoned for natural breeding to achieve the “highest probability” of success, the experts concluded.

The floors in the elephant barn are concrete but rubberized to help provide cushioning. The experts noted that replacing the unyielding concrete with cushioning sand would better serve to protect the elephants’ feet.

The report also recommended that the trio of female elephants be allowed to have free contact with each other. The zoo now segregates the dominant Watoto, an African species, from Bamboo, an Asian she has shown aggression toward.

Placing the elephants together may result in an initial minor injury, but the risk is offset by the benefits of more socialization.

While task-force meetings have yielded few new disclosures, zoo administrators did report that the annual cost of the elephant exhibit is about $787,000. Officials had publicly maintained a cost breakdown couldn’t be calculated.

The task force, co-chaired by Jan Hendrickson, a Seattle venture capitalist and former Woodland Park Zoo board director, and Jay Manning, president of the Washington Environmental Council, will issue a final report sometime after the last scheduled meeting in September.

The task force’s final recommendations are not binding. While the city provides about a third of the zoo’s $39 million annual budget, the city relinquished management power in 2002 to the nonprofit Woodland Park Zoological Society.

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