Woodland Park Zoo elephants Chai, 36, and Bamboo, 48, will be heading to the Oklahoma City Zoo, officials announced Friday, Feb.27, disappointing animal advocates hoping they would be sent to a sanctuary.
The animals will leave Seattle in late March or early April. Sending the animals to Oklahoma City on a long-term loan will allow the Woodland Park Zoo, which will still own the animals, to be involved in their care.
Oklahoma City, which has very hot summers and very cold winters, may result in Chai and Bamboo spending more time indoors.
Last year the zoo announced plans to move Chai and Bamboo to another accredited zoo after the sudden death of Watoto and upon recommendations of the Elephant Task Force.
Laurie Stewart, chairwoman of the Woodland Park Zoo Board of Directors, said the zoo had many requirements for their “two girls.”
“They need a social herd of Asian elephants that Chai and Bamboo can integrate into. We need a state-of-the-art facility. We need a healthy environment free of infectious diseases. We need a high caliber zoo staff and veterinary staff. We need a restricted contact management program and an established history of stable finances and stable leadership. Oklahoma City Zoo has all of these. It’s really a fantastic situation.”
The Woodland Park Zoo is a member of the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)
The Oklahoma City Zoo has four female Asian elephants ages 20, 18 and 4 years, and a 2-month-old. A 47-year-old male named Rex is also part of the herd.
“They’re going to have a great opportunity to live and socialize in the herd of elephants and receive exemplary care,” Stewart said.
Extreme weather conditions effect Oklahoma City unlike Seattle which has relatively mild temperatures throughout the year.
A history of temperatures in 2014 indicate how many days the elephants may have stayed indoors under the current guidelines.
Seattle maximum days that reach 40 degrees or below: 10
Seattle maximum days that reach 95 degrees or above: 0
Oklahoma City maximum days that reach 40 degrees or below: 29
Oklahoma City maximum days that reach 95 degrees or above: 36
(figures compiled from NOAA)
On Friday, the weather in Oklahoma City was 19 degrees forcing the zoo to close. Compared with Seattle, “It is a warmer climate in summer and colder in the winter,” Jensen said. “There’s more variability, but on average it’s not a significant difference.”
“If it is freezing, the elephants stay in the barn,” Bottaro said.
The long drive to Oklahoma will take 35 to 40 hours, with stops in between. Woodland Park Zoo staff and a veterinarian will follow in a car and be met by other zoo staff once they arrive.
Laura Bottaro, animal curator at the Oklahoma City Zoo, said she hopes that Bamboo will integrate herself into their multigenerational herd as a matriarch and that Chai will become another “auntie”.
The Oklahoma City Zoo opened its new 3.95-acre, $13 million elephant habitat in 2011. One large pasture is 2.6 acres and features a 12-foot-deep, 214,000-gallon pool, a waterfall and a stream. Two smaller pastures are about a half-acre each. Currently, Chai and Bamboo share a 1.1-acre space at the Woodland Park Zoo, giving them around the same amount of space they will eventually have in Oklahoma City at the current herd size.
The elephant barn in Oklahoma City is 12,636 square feet, with around 2,000 square feet dedicated to support space. It features eight stalls plus a community stall with sand substrate. The barn also has a radiant floor heating system.
Oklahoma City Zoo officials say the zoo can accommodate a herd of up to 12 elephants.
Elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo are expected to perform in an outdoor pavilion providing entertainment for up to 400 people observing them demonstrating “natural elephant behaviors including daily routines such as baths, foot care and training sessions,” according to a press release.
“I don’t call it a performance. I call it a behavioral demonstration,” Bottaro said. “When you want to connect your guests we feel like that sort of interaction is appropriate and necessary. And so the animals do have an extra yard because of the demonstration in another quarter-acre… All the behaviors that we train at the Oklahoma Zoo are what we call purposeful behaviors so everything we train is mostly husbandry and it asks the elephants to participate in their own care. The public is fascinated by the way our elephants and their keepers relate to each other.”
The demonstrations are seasonal daily events running March through November. Trainers do not use bull hooks or hot shots but they use a target pole and positive reinforcement such as distribution of produce or grain.
Animal advocates were devastated about the decision, having hoped the elephants would be transferred to the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in California. Deborah Jensen, president and CEO of the Woodland Park Zoo, said zoo officials took a hard look at that facility but decided it was not the best place for their animals.
“One, they have two Asian elephants that have an active case of tuberculosis and are under quarantine, and two, they don’t have a yard for our two elephants to join, but even if they did, Chai and Bamboo would be socially isolated,” Jensen said. She said that the zoo’s top priority is that Chai and Bamboo would move into another socially integrated herd and that the zoo is happy to work with the Oklahoma City Zoo. Other sanctuaries were not considered citing management and financial struggles.
Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, said, “It is clear that Woodland Park Zoo does not make the elephants’ quality of life or health a priority. Bamboo and Chai desperately need Seattle’s mayor and City Council to step in. They have the authority to honor the wish of their constituents and get these long-suffering elephants to sanctuary.”
In a past statement, Fortgang said, “Bamboo and Chai have lived in a tiny zoo display since they were taken from their mothers as babies. They deserve space and peace in a sanctuary — in a warm climate.
“Once Bamboo and Chai leave Seattle, we will have no ability to control what happens to them. They could be moved again and again. Moving elephants around like furniture is not uncommon in the zoo industry.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council sent a letter to Woodland Park Zoo in January asking for assurance the elephants’ welfare would be a deciding factor in where they go and that zoo officials meet the following the criteria:
- • Increase the size and complexity of the yard
- • Provide a drier warmer climate
- • Ensure the elephants have expanded activities
Woodland Park Zoo officials said they talked to the City Council this morning and responded to the council and mayor’s letter last week. Jensen said it’s been an active dialogue, but the council was not involved in the decision. “The decision is the zoo’s.”
The Woodland Park Zoo is located on city land and receives about 30% of its funding from Seattle and King County. A 20-year operating agreement with the city manages it.
“What’s best for the elephants,” Bottaro said, “is the multigenerational opportunity for them to integrate with the Woodland Park Zoo herd.” She said she believes the Oklahoma zoo can offer Chai and Bamboo everything a sanctuary can, plus more. “People think that once in awhile elephants travel hundreds of miles. They really don’t. They follow the food source. Foraging opportunities keeps them moving. They forage up to 18 hours a day.”
Jensen said the zoo has heard from many people in the community disappointed that they won’t have elephants in Seattle anymore but believes that they’re doing the right thing.
Chai and Bamboo have already started training for their journey, which will involve individual climate-controlled crates for each of them on the back of a flatbed tractor trailer. The 2,000-mile journey will involve several stops along the way to ensure their safety and well-being. Woodland Park Zoo staff and a veterinarian will follow in a separate car. Additional staff will also be in Oklahoma City to make sure transition is smooth. The cost of transferring Chai and Bamboo will be around $50,000 to $100,000, shared by both zoos.
At first Chai and Bamboo will be in quarantine for 30 days behind protective barriers, but they will be able to see, smell and hear the other elephants. They will be in Paddock 1, which has a small pond on a half-acre. If their behavior is positive, zoo staff will start integrating them with the others. “If for some reason they are not compatible, the barn is very flexible. The habitat is very flexible. We can alternate animals on and off,” Bottaro said.
“First our Sonics and now our elephants are going to Oklahoma City?” asked someone in the press conference audience, consisting only of members of the media.
Chai, who has been artificially inseminated 112 times, may be used in the breeding program at Oklahoma City Zoo. “The likelihood of her becoming pregnant is slim,” said veterinarian Darin Collins, director of animal health programs at the Woodland Park Zoo but added, “It’s slim, not zero. We wouldn’t rule that out as a possibility. But that’s not the reason for the move.”
Oklahoma City Zoo officials say their exhibit can hold up to 12 elephants.
As for when Chai and Bamboo will leave Seattle, zoo officials said the animals will dictate when they’re ready. “Once the animals are acclimated to the crates, that will determine when they leave, ideally end of March and mid-April.” said Martin Ramirez, Woodland Park Zoo’s mammal curator, encouraging the public to come and see them before they go.
The Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program came under scrutiny in 2013 after a Seattle Times’ investigation, “Glamour Beasts” Part 1, exposed failing elephant programs in the zoo industry around the country. “Glamour Beasts” Part 2 compares zoos with sanctuaries explaining the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) opposes sanctuaries because sanctuaries refuse to breed more elephants into captivity. Zoos who send their elephants to sanctuaries lose their accreditation.
A recent story on KUOW follow the relationships between the Seattle officials and the Woodland Park Zoo “Behind The Scenes, Seattle Officials Battle Over Zoo Elephants’ Future“
In October 2013 a story also appeared in Crosscut regarding the Elephant Task Force. The Task Force had been set up by the zoo to review its elephant program.
The zoo is helping with elephant conservation efforts around the world. Currently they are working in the field with Partners for Wildlife, the Tarangire Conservation Project in Africa and the Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation Project in Asia.