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Seattle Zoo Investigates Itself


It’s a dark tale of rape, incest, torture and cover-up: A female elephant artificially inseminated at least 112 times; a male elephant forced to breed with his own daughter; elephants beaten into submission as they’re forced to breed, and all of it taking place behind a façade of caring, conservation and education.

These were just a few of the facts revealed by a devastating investigation of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo last year by the Seattle Times.

The investigation led to pressure on the zoo to put together an independent panel that would review the situation for the zoo’s three elephants, Chai, Bamboo and Watoto, and to provide recommendations for the future of the elephant “exhibit.”

The panel’s report concludes that the zoo provides excellent care. The two overall options it presents for the future of the exhibit are:

  1. the three elephants be kept at the zoo until they die, following which the elephant program be retired, or
  2. that more elephants be bred at the zoo to keep the program going.

Not surprisingly, the panel recommends the breeding option. It also offers a few suggestions for improvement in the already “excellent care” the zoo provides: for example, that the elephants should have more contact with each other and that some of the rubberized concrete that they stand around on all day should be replaced with sand. Five of the people on the 14-member panel, including its chairperson, are present or past members of the zoo’s board.

The reasons the recommendations are no surprise begins with the fact that five of the people on the 14-member “independent” panel, including its chairperson, are present or past members of the zoo’s board.

Panel members include prominent people from the worlds of business, education, science and zoology, mostly from the local community. There’s a former city councilor and mayor of Vancouver. Several panel members have been associated with companion animal humane groups, and one is the executive director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, which focuses mainly on companion animals. The one veterinarian on the panel teaches about bioethics in animal welfare and rights, but is not an animal rights supporter. In fact, none of the panel’s members come from the world of animal rights advocacy.

Perhaps the only surprise, then, is that the report includes a section of “Minority Views”, which notes, among other things, that:

  • the elephants are showing repetitive, stereotypical behavior (like swaying and bobbing);
  • they do not live as a single group;
  • they don’t remotely have enough space;
  • there’s little evidence that their presence at the zoo is contributing to education or conservation;
  • they should not be part of a breeding program;
  • the zoo should not bring more elephants to the zoo;
  • and if their situation cannot be substantially improved, the elephants should be transferred to a sanctuary.

This minority view – a no-brainer in the view of people in the world of animal protection – is not about to be implemented.

“Nothing here is unexpected because the Task Force was handpicked by the zoo board to get the outcome they wanted,” Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, told KOMO news. “They repeatedly refused to answer many of our questions, like what was the criteria for selecting the task force members.”

Chai has already been artificially inseminated 112 times, and zookeepers had previously decided not to try anymore.Ms. Fortgang did commend the minority members of the panel for speaking up. “I hope the zoo board will listen to them,” she said. “Sadly I don’t think that will be case.”

Nancy Pellegrino, president of the Woodland Park Zoo board, said that the idea of doing away with the elephant exhibit altogether would only be considered if everything else fails. She said that having elephants at the zoo is essential if the zoo is to “further our conservation efforts for animals in the wild” – efforts that the minority group consider largely minimal and ineffective.

So, as things stand, everything will continue as normal with a few minor improvements like giving the elephants a slightly better kind of floor to stand on while they’re standing around. For animals who are used to traveling dozens of miles every day, standing in an enclosure is a recipe for serious foot problems, arthritis, boredom and more stereotypical behavior.


Chai, one of the elephants the zoo wants to breed, which the panel also recommends, has already been artificially inseminated 112 times, and zookeepers had previously decided not to try anymore.

Chai was captured in Thailand as a baby in 1979, and before she’d even been weaned, she was pulled from her mother and “donated” to the Seattle Zoo by Thai Airways International as a thank-you-type promotion for Seattle opening new routes to South Asia. In an attempt to breed her, the zoo sent her to the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri.

Chai didn’t do well at the zoo in Missouri. A normally shy girl, she went into open rebellion at the zoo’s attempts to breed her, and had to be beaten into submission, sometimes for hours at a time (for which the zoo was fined by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture).

Once she’d been raped numerous times and finally made pregnant, Chai was brought back to Seattle with her unborn baby and a dangerous herpes virus that she’d contracted. Six years after she gave birth to a female elephant, Hansa, the youngster began hemorrhaging internally – a condition caused by the virus – and was found dead the following day. It turned out that both zoos knew about the virus, as did the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), but went ahead with their program regardless – and with the blessing of the AZA.

This is just one of the shocking stories told in the 2012 investigative report by the Seattle Times that led to pressure on the zoo to conduct a full, public investigation of its own.

But even if the panel’s report will change very little for the elephants, the zoo may well be forced, sooner or later, to reconsider its options considering the growing public pressure to bring an end to the keeping of elephants in captivity.