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Originally published December 8, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified December 10, 2012 at 10:54 AM

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Op-ed: Zoos play a vital role protecting wild elephants and their habitat

Communicating the very serious threat to elephants in the wild — and working to save them — are the most important reasons to have elephants in zoos, write two members of the Woodland Park Zoo board of directors.

Special to The Times

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MOST people will never experience an elephant in the wild.

Zoos can place people near these magnificent animals in a very personal way. Seeing, hearing and smelling elephants can spark a very personal, emotional connection that inspires people to help elephants in the wild.

Elephants face great pressure from human conflict and habitat loss in their home countries. Killing them for their ivory has fueled the slaughter of thousands of elephants and has escalated at an alarming rate. Habitat loss is also increasing their risk of extinction.

These real threats to elephants and the role of zoos in addressing them were not addressed by The Times special report [“Glamour beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity,” page one, Dec. 2 and Dec. 3]. But this is a primary purpose for Woodland Park Zoo and a crucial story we want to share with the residents of this region. Communicating that threat to elephants — and working to save them — are the most important reasons to have elephants in zoos.

The full story is that zoos are not here just for humans. Zoos are a vital element in saving many species from extinction — elephants included. We study them, learn about their diseases and collaborate with field conservationists and scientists.

Increasingly, support for field-conservation programs is an essential element at Woodland Park Zoo. We have learned lessons about elephant reproduction, communication and behavior that never could have been gleaned from wild populations.

Although The Times’ story focused on instances of elephant herpes virus-caused deaths among captive animals, it neglected to tell readers that upward of 50 young wild elephants — that we know of so far — also have succumbed to this virus in Asian countries. A consortium of zoos and academic institutions is working diligently to combat these viruses in captive and wild elephants, which have been carried in various forms for millions of years. Anti-viral drugs have saved young elephants that show signs of disease.

Our elephants — Watoto, Chai and Bamboo — receive exemplary care from our team of veterinarians, zookeepers and leaders in the field of elephant management and reproduction. Our elephant staff is recognized as one of the best in the nation.

Foot problems? Not in our elephants. Outmoded methods of handling, restraint and contact? We have helped develop the state of the art in elephant care known as “protected contact.”

We continue to strive to find a way to sustain a multigenerational herd. Artificial insemination has been used successfully in other elephants, and in fact is used millions of times a year as a safe, simple procedure in many domestic animals species, but we have not been as fortunate with Chai.

Lack of success, although deeply disappointing, does not mean we should not have tried. We learn from our experience and apply all that we learn to the benefit of our herd and all the elephants in the wild.

The board and staff of Woodland Park Zoo are all committed to the excellent day-to-day care of our elephants and, as a conservation institution, we will continue to play an active role to help these majestic giants thrive on the planet, in zoos and in the wild. The zoo’s elephants are central to our mission:

Woodland Park Zoo saves animals and their habitats, through conservation leadership and engaging experiences, inspiring people to learn, care and act.

Please come visit your elephants at the zoo and learn how you can help ensure the wild elephants will continue to share our planet.

Bryan Slinker, left, is dean of the college of veterinary medicine at Washington State University. Rob Liddell is a diagnostic radiologist practicing in Seattle and has been a volunteer diagnostic radiologist for the veterinary staff at Woodland Park Zoo for 24 years. Both are members of the Woodland Park Zoo board of directors and of the zoo’s animal-care committee.

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