Group to decide what's best for Woodland Park Zoo's elephants

Apr 18, 2013

After years of controversy over the welfare of the elephants at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, a task force of community leaders will meet for the first time Thursday.

Their goal is to figure out what’s best for the zoo’s three elephants.

The treatment and living conditions of the elephants at the zoo have long been a sore spot with animal rights activists who say the intelligent and social animals suffer from a lack of space and natural surroundings.

In 2007, there was a public outcry over the death of the 6-year-old calf Hansa from an infectious disease. That brought attention to the zoo’s long—and largely unsuccessful—efforts to artificially inseminate Hansa’s mother, Chai.

A damning investigative series in the Seattle Times also contributed to the zoo’s decision to form an independent committee to evaluate the elephant program.

The zoo’s David Schaefer says convening the task force isn’t just a P.R. exercise.

"There aren’t any shills on that committee," he said. "There aren’t people on that committee who are going to just tell us and the board what we want to hear. That’s the reason for choosing people of that quality and that’s the reason for having their meetings in public."

The 15-member task force is co-chaired by Jan Hendrickson, a Seattle venture capitalist and former Woodland Park Zoo board director, and Jay Manning, former chief of the state Department of Ecology and current president of the Washington Environmental Council.

The members will seek information from a range of experts. For example, they’ll look at how the elephants at Woodland Park are being cared for, find out how other zoos deal with their elephants, and study refuges where retired elephants are allowed to roam in more natural surroundings.

The task force hopes to present its findings by the end of the summer.