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Originally published Friday, October 10, 2014 at 5:07 PM

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Editorial: Learn from the death of zoo elephant Watoto, move remaining elephants

Woodland Park Zoo leaders must learn from the tragic death last August of Watoto, a 45-year old African elephant. They should hasten efforts to move the two remaining elephants to a sanctuary.

Seattle Times Editorial

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A NUMBER of lessons should be drawn from the investigation into the death of Watoto the elephant. Among them: Chai and Bamboo, the two surviving females in the Woodland Park Zoo’s pachyderm exhibit, deserve to live out their days in a warm and spacious sanctuary.

Spare these two beloved creatures the pain Watoto suffered before she was euthanized on Aug. 22.

Zoo officials say they do not know whether the 45-year-old African elephant lay down or fell. But chronic arthritis in Watoto’s leg joints likely rendered her unable to stand back up, according to Woodland Park’s director of animal health, Dr. Darin Collins.

The city should remove Chai and Bamboo from captivity as soon as possible. The zoo should also reveal how long Watoto was down, as well as why records indicate no one checked on the exhibit in the hours leading up to her collapse.

Had she been found sooner, she might have stood a chance of survival — at least this time.

“Arthritis and lameness in elephants confined in zoos is directly related to their environment and among the leading causes of premature death,” the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants wrote in an Oct. 8 public statement. “Watoto was forced to stand on hard substrates during prolonged lockup in the barn and on unyielding compacted ground outdoors.”

The Seattle zoo’s board ought to be inspired by its counterparts in Alaska, Toronto and Detroit, where zookeepers chose to retire their elephants to a sanctuary in California.

Fundraising to move them should not be a problem. As an independent nonprofit, the Woodland Park Zoo has shown itself capable of raising millions of private dollars, in addition to receiving public funding.

What the zoo’s leadership has failed to do is be more transparent about how that money is spent. A devastating 2012 Seattle Times investigation revealed the zoo tried and failed 112 times to artificially inseminate Chai.

Time to leave these elephants alone.

Resolve to treat them more humanely, and consider turning the confined space they are trapped now into a learning center for conservation efforts.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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