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Originally published Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at 6:16 PM

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Guest: Mayor Ed Murray, City Council should protect Woodland Park Zoo elephants

How much longer will the Seattle City Council and mayor allow Woodland Park Zoo to operate from its 19th-century playbook? guest columnist Judy Nicastro asks.

Special to The Times

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We, the people of Seattle, did not elect Debbie Jensen and the WPZ Board. We did elect the Mayor and City Council... MORE
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WILL Seattle Mayor Ed Murray go down in history with a legacy of progressive change and lead the elephants of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to a vastly improved quality of life in a sanctuary?

After the tragic, sudden death of the elephant Watoto, Murray called the death “very sad news” and stated “I do believe that today’s news should reopen a dialogue in this city about the proper habitat for elephants.”

The mayor is right. He has a great opportunity to use the city’s power and influence to get Woodland Park Zoo to join the 28 zoos which have closed or plan to close their elephant exhibits. The list includes Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma.

How much longer will the Seattle City Council and mayor allow Woodland Park Zoo to operate from its 19th-century playbook? Who will have the courage to tell the zoo the paradigm has shifted: Neither the Seattle community nor independent science supports holding elephants in cramped, cold exhibits anymore?

After conducting a sweeping review of the latest science on elephants and conditions of captivity, Scientific American said, “These tortuous conditions inflict serious physical and psychological damage on such smart and sensitive animals.”

The article concluded that if the zoos really have the animals’ best interests at heart, they would close their elephant exhibits and terminate their captive breeding programs.

Inexplicably, the Seattle City Council has shown no leadership even though it has received hundreds of emails from constituents expressing their dismay at the zoo’s intransigence. The City Council has actively ignored poll results showing a super-majority of Seattleites support the retirement of the zoo’s elephants.

Instead, the council has protected the zoo’s archaic and discredited insistence on exhibiting elephants on a tiny landlocked footprint in a wet, inhospitable climate.

Officials at the zoo, emboldened by the passivity of the City Council, are cavalier, stubbornly insisting on adding more elephants. These new prospective residents will join Chai and Bamboo on one acre.

The zoo’s proposal to spend $3 million to increase their space minimally is unacceptable. Urban zoos cannot accommodate the amount of space an elephant needs. During seven months of inclement Seattle weather, they will endure lock-up in a barn cage so small they will stand in their own feces and urine for up to 17 hours every day.

Thankfully, Watoto’s death seems to have shaken our elected officials awake. Her death has focused a spotlight on the misery of the elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo.

At 45 years old, Watoto should have been in the prime of her life, nestled inside her loving, warm, extended family. Instead, she suffered in four decades of captivity without ever laying eyes on another African elephant. Her life was increasingly burdened by a host of captivity-induced illnesses. Finally, she collapsed alone. Within hours, she was dead.

If the zoo has its way, Chai and Bamboo and any other unlucky elephant who joins them will surely die, as Watoto did, without enjoying one carefree day of retirement in a warm, spacious sanctuary. Is this what Seattle wants?

As a mother of two small children I talk with a lot of moms. Most of them take their children to the zoo even though they believe that the elephants should be retired to a sanctuary.

The City Council can do something. It needs to pass a resolution or condition future funding on the zoo’s recognition and respect for this community’s values and enlightened science. The mayor can commit to persuading this imperious zoo to wake up to the scientific and ethical realities of the 21st century.

Throughout his political career, Murray has shown incredible leadership from fighting for gay marriage to increasing the minimum wage. He thinks, listens and acts. Time is running out to do what’s right for these magnificent, long-suffering creatures already in our midst. Ending elephant exhibition at our zoo can be one of Mayor Murray’s finest and most inspiring accomplishments.

Judy Nicastro served on the Seattle City Council from 2000 to 2004.

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