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Originally published Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 5:08 PM

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Guest: Move elephants at Woodland Park Zoo to a sanctuary

The Woodland Park Zoo should move its elephants to a sanctuary, writes guest columnist Judy Nicastro.


Special to The Times

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WHEN I served as a Seattle City Council member, we were always taking the temperature of our constituents. Why? Because what our constituents cared about mattered.

The Woodland Park Zoo receives $10 million from taxpayer funds annually. It has the same duty to listen to constituents.

Last December, The Seattle Times published “Glamour Beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity,” a sweeping indictment of zoo elephants’ misery and the futility of zoo breeding programs. It caused a public outcry. The zoo had to act.

The zoo announced it would assemble a task force to examine its elephant program. I requested a seat at the table, assuming the zoo would be interested in hearing from all perspectives within the community. The zoo said “no thanks” and packed the task force with present and past members of its board and others who were either sympathetic or connected to its operations.

In October, the task force issued a report on the future of the zoo’s elephant program. After outlining a few recommendations to modernize the facility and improve the elephants’ social experience, the report got down to brass tacks: It fully endorsed the zoo’s ambitions to hold onto its three elephants and continue breeding one of them, Chai.

If the zoo was interested in the community’s thoughts, Seattleites could give it an earful. An October survey commissioned by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants asked whether people supported moving the elephants to a sanctuary in a warmer climate with hundreds of acres of space. An impressive 62 percent of those surveyed said yes — and 66 percent said no to more breeding. In contrast, only 10 percent strongly favor what the zoo and task force propose: hold, display and breed.

The task force justified its recommendations by parroting the zoo’s mission: “The primary purpose for having an elephant program and exhibit is to provide an engaging experience that will inspire WPZ members and guests to learn, care and act to help conserve elephants and their habitats in the wild.”

If only it were true.

The October survey showed that 97 percent of Seattleites know about the elephant poaching crisis, but learned about it from various print and media sources — not from Woodland Park Zoo. Furthermore, the survey showed that of those who visited the elephant exhibit, 88 percent did not donate to different charities or purchase different products.

As a parent, I don’t believe that showing my children the elephants in the zoo pacing in circles or bobbing their heads up and down is any representation of a happy or healthy animal. Nor is it animal conservation. It teaches children that it is acceptable to capture, confine and breed another being primarily for our momentary amusement.

The survey plainly expressed that our community values compassion and selflessness. The results put the elephants’ welfare and quality of life first. Seattleites get it. These big-brained and big-bodied animals need autonomy, huge spaces, companionship of their choosing and a warm climate.

These are the values my husband and I are teaching my son and daughter. And these are the values the Seattle City Council and Woodland Park Zoo need to act upon.

It’s time for the Seattle City Council and Woodland Park Zoo to respect the values of their constituents, particularly when they are well-founded in science not frozen by institutional self-interest.

The climate change Bamboo, Chai and Watoto need is immediate sanctuary in California or Tennessee.

Judy Nicastro served on the Seattle City Council from 2000 to 2004.



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