Report says zoo elephants are healthy; critics aren't buying it

SEATTLE - Skepticism over the well-being of the elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo remains despite a recent report stating the three female pachyderms are bright, alert, active and in overall good health.

"Nothing here is unexpected because the Task Force was handpicked by the zoo board to get the outcome they wanted," said Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.

Fortgang is referring to the 24-page report just released by the Task Force on the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Exhibit and Program. The Woodland Park Zoo Board charged the 14-member task force, which included four zoo board members, to spend the last six months evaluating and studying the zoo's elephant program, exhibit and current welfare of Chai, Bamboo and Watoto.

"This was not the first time we have done a review of the elephants, but it is first time we have initiated an external process around this," said Nancy Pellegrino, president of the Woodland Park Zoo board. "It was just time. We needed some additional outside input. We were sort of at a crossroads relative to the program."

The task force released its findings during a public meeting Tuesday where the members outlined two long-term options for the zoo board to consider with regards to the future of the elephant exhibit and its program.

The crux of the first option, approved by the majority of the task force, calls for creating a multi-generational elephant herd with an effective breeding program focused on natural methods. The second long-term option, supported by a minority of the task force, calls for improving the existing exhibit and allowing all three elephants to age out or retire at the appropriate time.

"We went into this endeavor not wanting status quo from the task force, and that's what we got," Pellegrino said. "We were looking to them to take a fresh and unbiased, transparent look at the program, the exhibit and conversation efforts, and that's what they did."

But, Fortgang said from the very onset of this process the odds have been stacked in favor of the zoo, and it's been anything but transparent.

"They repeatedly refused to answer many of our questions, like what was the criteria for selecting the task force members," Fortgang said.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants argue the zoo environment deprives the elephants room to roam, interact socially and contributes to their physical and mental decline. Ultimately, the group wants to see all three elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo sent to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.

The recommendations made by the task force members were divided between a majority and a minority, but exactly how many members made up each group was not included in the report or shared with the public.

"They did not want to disclose the names of both the minority and majority," said Paul Bergman, spokesperson for the task force. "The task force believes its recommendations and findings are more important than who voted for or against it."

The task force findings may not surprise Fortgang, but she said she does appreciate what the minority, whomever they may be, set out to do.

"I do commend the minority opinion for their courage and compassion, and I hope the zoo board will listen to them," she said. "Sadly I don't think that will be case."

The zoo board plans to spend the next few months reviewing the report and the recommendations. Pellegrino said they are taking the task force findings very seriously, but the idea of doing away with the elephant exhibit altogether is something to consider if and only if everything else fails.

"If we don't have elephants in the zoo, then we are not going to be able to further our conservation efforts for animals in the wild," she said. "The task force declared the health and well-being of the elephants is good. Can it be better? Yes, and that's something we will work very hard on."

The zoo board plans to release its strategy by the first part of next year.

The task force's full report is available online.