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Originally published March 18, 2014 at 4:16 PM | Page modified March 19, 2014 at 5:35 PM

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Editorial: Let Woodland Park Zoo’s three aging elephants retire to a sanctuary

Send Chai, Watoto and Bamboo to a new home with space to roam and a reprieve from the cold and rain. The change may help them to truly bond.

Seattle Times Editorial

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If the Woodland Park Zoo board of directors does not announce aggressive plans to relocate the zoo’s three aging elephants, then it has no credible response.

Last year, a task force and an expert review report looked at the zoo’s cramped elephant exhibit. A majority concluded the elephant exhibit needed to be renovated, and the youngest female, Chai, should be naturally bred to grow the herd with a calf.

A minority said the elephant exhibit needed to be improved, but the current elephants should be allowed to age out or retire. Once they are gone, closure of the exhibit should follow.

No. The next step, the best step, is to truly begin with the end in mind. Get out of the elephant-display business, and start the fundraising to move Watoto, Bamboo and Chai to a sanctuary with space to roam. Get these large animals out of a pinched life in a confined setting.

Nothing much has changed — or is proposed to change — since Seattle Times reporter Michael Berens’ devastating December 2012 report on the lives of elephants in 78 accredited zoos.

Elephants are valued by zoos because they sustain ticket sales. That economic reality is characterized as the exposure and inspiration that stirs public support for wildlife conservation efforts in the wild. The public pays admission and accrues a virtue.

Why not work forward from the success of Woodland Park Zoo’s recently completed More Wonder More Wild Campaign, which raised $84 million over eight years? All manner of programs, visitor experiences and wildlife are invoked to describe the success in making the zoo “a dynamic hub for engaging all generations,” in the words of zoo President and Chief Executive Officer Deborah Jensen.

Of course, behind the scenes the zoo tried and failed 112 times to artificially inseminate Chai. She had lost a 6½-year-old daughter to a virus that claims young elephants in U.S. zoos.

So one plan is to bring in a bull to breed Chai, who has an ovarian cyst and a benign uterine fibroid. Or maybe bring in another female? What would a baby be named? Revenue?

The zoo’s report on the elephants finds them healthy enough, but with some aches and pains and sore feet. The two oldest females, Watoto and Bamboo, do not get along. Three large animals designed by nature to cover lots of space, share a cloistered acre. Any grumpiness might be better described as stir crazy.

The zoo is a hybrid, an independent nonprofit that seeks and receives substantial public funding, pays no rent for its park site and buildings, and wants more money for capital projects.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants is trying to hold the zoo accountable. Co-founder Alyne Fortgang filed a lawsuit March 12 to make the Woodland Park Zoological Society subject to state public-record laws.

Seeking transparency for the use of considerable public resources is a good thing.

Fortgang’s organization has worked for years to retire the three elephants and send them to a better place. A survey commissioned in October 2013 found 62 percent of Seattle residents supporting relocation of the elephants to a sanctuary.

Consider what is best for Watoto, Bamboo and Chai. The best way for Seattle to say “thank you ” is to wish them a safe trip and a comfortable new life.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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