People will pay fistfuls of cash to see a baby anything. When a female Asian elephant was born at the Woodland Park Zoo in 2000, the zoo's "name the baby elephant" contest generated nearly 16,000 entries. Zoo employees privately proposed naming her Cash Cow—female elephants are called cows—but she was officially named Hansa, meaning "supreme happiness" in Thai. (Asian elephants are native to the hot jungles of Southeast Asia and India.) After Hansa's birth, attendance at the Woodland Park Zoo doubled. Then, at age 6, Hansa was found dead in the elephant barn by zookeepers. Her death was caused by elephant herpes, a disease that kills nearly 90 percent of infected young Asian elephants in captivity and was likely passed on through her mother, Chai, a wild Asian elephant gifted to the zoo in 1980.
The zoo has tried to artificially inseminate Chai at least 57 times since acquiring her, according to a lawsuit that will have its first hearing on May 27. (The lawsuit is the source of the allegation about employees calling the baby Cash Cow.) All those attempts to get Chai knocked up have resulted in only one live birth (Hansa) and many miscarriages. "These miscarriages have caused Chai to suffer both physical and psychological pain," the suit alleges.
Elephants—intelligent, self-aware, and capable of empathy—mourn their dead, from stillborns to old matriarchs. In captivity and the wild, they've been observed rocking and keening over stillborns. "That's not an anthropomorphic exaggeration," says Dr. Gay Bradshaw, the author of Elephants on the Edge, which explores elephant psychology and behavior in captivity and the wild. "Elephants have a capacity psychologically and emotionally that's comparable to ours." When Hansa died, her mother and the other elephants were given time alone to smell and touch her body to pay their last respects. (Presumably, there's a 90 percent chance that will happen again if Chai gives birth again—the zoo's most recent attempt to impregnate her was in March.)
Chai lives with two other female elephants—Bamboo and Watoto—in the Woodland Park Zoo's one-acre elephant enclosure, whimsically named the Thai Village. You get there by following the Trail of Vines past the swimming grotto and through the Elephant Forest. But the exhibit isn't as idyllic as its Candy Land–ish name portends: The enclosure consists of grubby fields, a concrete pool, and the Elephant Barn, where Chai, Bamboo, and Watoto hide out when temperatures dip below 40 degrees.
"Is he dancing?" a child in front of the Elephant Barn's large Plexiglas windows asked her mother the other day. In the barn's shower room, Bamboo rocked gently in place, her head pointed at the wall. Picture books don't prepare children for real-life elephants—their sparse hair, canyon-deep wrinkles, or magnificent bigness. The elephants tower over the children like breathing buildings.
"He is dancing!" Mom replied.
The zoo argues that the elephant exhibit is important because elephants are endangered and their presence helps educate the public and spur conservation efforts. But the education element in the Thai Village is pretty sparse—nothing you couldn't learn from a children's book—and it's printed on plaques no one reads. "There have been empirical studies of how long people stay at exhibits, and if they read the signs, that show people don't learn much from the exhibits," says Matthew Liebman, the Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer handling the lawsuit. A 2010 study in the peer-reviewed journal Society & Animals with Dr. Lori Marino as its lead author concurs—finding that "there is no compelling evidence to date that zoos and aquariums promote attitude changes, education, or interest in conservation in their visitors, despite claims to the contrary."
Even the mom and her kid looking at Bamboo haven't learned a thing about her—like, for instance, Bamboo is not a he. And for what it's worth, Bamboo is not dancing. The movement Bamboo is making is "an exhibition of profound distress or trauma," explains Dr. Bradshaw. Captive elephants exhibit a host of specific behaviors, Dr. Bradshaw continues, including lethargy, aggression, and "behaviors consistent with people who are held captive and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. We see the same in elephants."
While Bamboo rocked in the shower room, Watoto and Chai were stretching their trunks into lofted barrels of alfalfa inside the barn's main room, pulling out tufts of food and tucking it into their mouths. Occasionally, Watoto stopped eating to pace the room. Watoto and Chai weigh more than 8,000 pounds and are between 12 and 15 feet long. The space in the barn they share is smaller than a tennis court. Watoto can't easily turn around with Chai in the room. She must back up instead—an elephant in reverse. Even though elephants are incredibly social creatures, Bamboo and Watoto don't get along and must be separated at all times, so there's very little socializing.
Experts with the World Wildlife Fund estimate that elephants in captivity should have a minimum of 247 acres to roam. Elephants are accustomed to walking up to 20 miles a day in the wild, and daily walks keep their feet healthy. The lawsuit charges that Chai, Bamboo, and Watoto sharing a single acre has caused preventable foot and joint problems. "Bamboo and Watoto both suffer from osteoarthritis, a degenerative and painful joint disease," the suit states. "Bamboo and Chai suffer from... pockets of fluid and pus that often develop above the nails of the foot or underneath the foot and are very painful." Elephant osteoarthritis and foot abscesses are caused by standing on hard surfaces, lack of movement, excessive moisture, and excess weight, the suit contends.
Moreover, Highway 99 runs right past Woodland Park Zoo's elephant enclosure. Elephants use their feet to communicate, and local animal rights activists say the constant traffic vibrations contribute to their abusive environment. "We have no idea how those vibrations affect them," says Alyne Fortgang, codirector of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, one of three local groups that has unsuccessfully lobbied since 2005 to get the zoo's elephants retired to a 2,700-acre elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, one of two such sanctuaries in the nation. (Fortgang is not a party to the current lawsuit.) "But common sense tells us it can't be a perk of the environment."
Lawsuits filed by activists against zoos are nothing new, but last year Mary Sebek and Nancy Farnam took the unusual step of filing suit not against the zoo but against the City of Seattle—only the second lawsuit in the country taken out against a city for supporting "illegal zoo practices." (The other lawsuit is in Los Angeles and also concerns elephant welfare; it's currently in litigation.)
In spite of protests from activists for years, the zoo flatly refuses to send its elephants to the Tennessee sanctuary. The zoo did send a fourth elephant it owns, Sri, to the Saint Louis Zoo in 2002, but not because it could provide a better home for her. The zoo sent her there to make baby elephants as part of an inter-zoo breeding program. At one point in Saint Louis, Sri became pregnant, but her full-term fetus died in utero. Surgery to remove the fetus would be incredibly complicated, expensive, and risky—it's simply not done. Instead, most elephants succumb to infection caused by the decaying fetus inside them and die. Surprisingly, Sri has not died. According to the lawsuit, "Sri has been carrying the deceased, slowly mummifying fetus in her birth canal for more than four years."
The aim of Sebek and Farnam's suit is to halt the $6.5 million flow of taxpayer funds that the zoo gets annually. "The city owes the public not to waste public dollars or misuse public space," says Liebman, the Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer. "We're arguing that the city is funding the private zoo society to indulge in illegal practices. It's not in the public's best interest." The lawsuit claims the zoo violates state and local animal cruelty laws by "knowingly and recklessly inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on its elephants." The suit cites abusive breeding practices, exposure to beatings, extended periods of confinement, subjecting the elephants to the "severe and chronic foot and joint injuries" mentioned earlier, as well as "unexplained physical trauma and bleeding, and sustained psychological harm."
I tried to get the Woodland Park Zoo's side of the story, but when I asked how much revenue the elephants bring in, a zoo representative declined to comment, citing the lawsuit (the zoo is a codefendant). When I inquired if I could ask more general questions about the zoo, another declined and sent me a press release, which states:
Woodland Park Zoo vigorously disputes the plaintiffs' characterization of our elephant care program. Our elephants are healthy and thriving—they have healthy appetites, they play, they socialize, they vocalize, and they interact with their herd mates and keepers. We are committed to the lifelong and day-to-day care of our elephants... As an institution accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), which sets the highest standards of animal care for all species, our zoo meets or exceeds all of AZA's Standards for Elephant Management and Care.
"Accreditation doesn't mean they have the elephants' best interests in mind," Liebman counters. "The AZA is essentially a trade organization—its job is to promote zoos. Elephants are marquee attractions—they make money. So the AZA has fought almost every attempt to move elephants out of zoos. Even in Detroit, where elephants have no place being, they've fought transferring them."
The Detroit Zoo is the only zoo in the nation to voluntarily retire all of its elephants to a sanctuary. The Bronx Zoo has stated that it will shut down its two-acre elephant exhibit once the elephants living there now die off. Even the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma acknowledges that elephants need more room to roam than it can provide and is exploring "transitioning away" from keeping elephants (again, once its current elephants die off).
"We'd like to have more space—our yard is about an acre—but our footprint doesn't allow much for expansion," says John Houck, deputy director of the Point Defiance Zoo. There are also only about 150 Asian elephants nationally, and captive breeding programs just aren't working, he says. "We need to see about nine calves born a year, nationwide, and we're averaging about two. It's really a numbers game. When we lose these two current elephants, what will we do?"
Still, the Woodland Park Zoo has no plans to retire its elephants or expand its space. It continues to try to breed more babies on its one-acre plot.
On April 25, the City Attorney's Office and the zoo filed a joint motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The motion will be considered by King County Superior Court judge Mike Heavey on May 27. "Plaintiff's belief that zoos should not house or breed elephants is a political, policy debate not justifiable in this Court," the motion states. Zoo officials boast that over one million people visit the Woodland Park Zoo annually. "If people are to care about elephants, they need to learn about elephants. Accredited zoos provide a powerful venue that inspires conservation learning, interest, and action."
"If you want to learn about elephant behavior, go read a book," says Dr. Bradshaw. "Learning isn't an excuse for cruelty. If you want a healthy elephant, you don't put them in a zoo."
This article has been updated since its original publication.