Elephant advocates want to deny students funding because the zoo sucks for elephants.
Elephant advocates think that 334 arts, science, and cultural heritage institutions shouldn't receive more money to offer educational opportunities for kids because one of those organizations allegedly mistreated elephants who are no longer at the zoo. KELLY O

In a letter released to the press Monday morning, Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, Seattle’s self-appointed elephant lobby, joined the Christian dads running the Seattle Times Editorial Board in their opposition to Proposition 1, a minuscule (albeit regressive) increase in the retail sales tax ($0.001) that would raise approximately $490 million for low-income families and allow 285,000 King County students to have access to the county's cultural and scientific institutions.

Because the Woodland Park Zoo didn't release their cash cows elephants—Chai and Bamboo—to the wilds of Tennessee two years ago, these trembling concern trolls are urging their fellow activists to vote "no." Members of the group stood up at a recent council meeting and I paid them little mind, but now that they've taken the trouble to send out an e-mail I find myself obligated to address their points.

The pachyderm protectionists, according to Friends co-founder Alyne Fortgang, don't like Prop 1 because:


This measure would raise over one-half billion dollars for arts and cultural programs by increasing the retail sales tax. The sales tax is recognized as a regressive tax that hits lower income households the hardest.

Prop 1 raises just under half a billion dollars over seven years, and on average the tax will cost low-income households (that's a house with four people in it) approximately $13 per year. Though regressive, pitching in 13 bucks a year for free or extremely reduced, year-round access to 334 arts, science, and cultural heritage organizations across the county is a good deal.

As my colleague Amber Cortes shows, these families don't just get tickets, they get their kids educated. Larger, "regional" orgs such as the Woodland Park Zoo must invest 20 percent of the money they receive from this tax in public school programs. They also have to spend 15 percent on increasing equity in the audiences they serve, and then another 15 percent must be used on partnering with organizations outside the city of Seattle and Bellevue. The other 50 percent of their money cannot be spent on capital projects. So even though the money is raised regressively, the money must be spent progressively.

And according to WPZ's Lauri Hennessey, these families and students won't just get tickets, free field trips, and education. They'll get jobs.

Hennessey told me Prop 1 will allow the zoo to offer over a hundred new, paid internships to students from underserved communities and low-income households. Right now, they can only offer 18 paid internships.


This measure would be a bonanza for large and wealthy organizations that don’t need taxpayer support—including the Woodland Park Zoo, an organization that has already received over $177 million in taxpayer subsidies by Seattle and King County residents.

Just because the zoo looks like it has money doesn't mean it couldn't use more money to—and I hesitate to say it again, but the form of the argument requires me to—serve a greater number of poor people and kids in the county.


Proposition 1 will make the zoo eligible for tens of millions of additional taxpayer dollars while higher priorities like affordable housing, roads, homelessness, education and other human services desperately need funding.

I wonder if the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo's Elephants can read these two articles and chew gum at the same time?


If passed, none of the funding would go to improve the animals’ quality of life in the zoo.

That's right. Because this bill isn't about animals. It's about people, mostly children.

Don't get me wrong. We must adjust our moral compass to include the concerns of non-human animals. What's better for them tends to be better for us. And let's face it: zoos are weird. They may even be inhumane. Every time I visit the zoo I think the gorillas look depressed, the polar bears look confused, and the tigers look like caged, middle-aged gods.

But as theater critic I sit through at least five plays per year that I'd consider inhumane. Just because I don't like the work some playhouses produce doesn't mean they (and hundreds of other organizations) shouldn't get more money to help children learn about the magic of theater.

And despite any misgivings I have about the treatment of delightfully named elephants, the zoo educates tens of thousands of King County students each year, and not just by posting fact plaques around habitats. They walk students through the wetlands, show them how to count amphibians and plants, and give them real, hands-on science experiences. Kids need those kinds of field trips so they don't grow up to become poets and journalists.

I called Fortgang, who took a pot of broccoli off the stove to talk with me about this, and asked if her opposition to Prop 1 was essentially a product of an old grudge with the zoo. She reiterated the press release's lines about the regressive tax and said she thinks the bill needs to be re-written. Though she attends the symphony and Taproot Theatre, she doesn't think such organizations should hold out their hand for government money, at least not when the zoo can also be a recipient of that money.

Though she says her opposition to Prop 1 really, absolutely has nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of grudge against the zoo for their alleged mistreatment of Chai and Bamboo, she does really want to know where the money used to house and care for those elephants went, and furthermore doesn't see why the zoo doesn't just replace their live animal exhibits with virtual ones.

Hennessey told me the elephant money went a couple different places. They built Banyan Wilds (where the tigers are), Molbak's Butterfly Garden and the Microsoft Pollinator Patio, where "zookeepers and teen volunteers hatch and raise endangered Oregon silverspot butterflies for release into protected wild habitat." Some money also went to support elephant conservation efforts around the world, and the zookeepers charged to tend to Chai and Bamboo were redeployed to other exhibits. A sizable chunk was also used to launch the Ambassador Animals project, wherein professional animal handlers bring trained animals like Lucy the raccoon and Blueberry the
female knobbed hornbill to schools and non-profits to raise awareness about how awesome raccoons and female knobbed hornbills are.

When told of the paid internships and other hands-on educational experiences the zoo was offering, Fortgang denied knowledge of them and said that the internships would only serve to "promote the continuation of an antiquated concept of animals primarily for entertainment."

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