By Eric Scigliano
The zoo rebuffed a sanctuary and may have ignored its own task force's advice. Now another elephant is dead.
At 7 a.m. on August 22, zookeepers noticed an African elephant named Watoto, a fixture at Woodland Park Zoo for 43 years, lying on the ground, unable to stand. They tried to lift her to feet, using first what the zoo described as “cloth straps,” then “heavy machinery.” According to a posting that day on the WPZ blog, these efforts failed. According to subsequent releases from the zoo, they succeeded in getting Watoto to her feet but she couldn’t stay up.
“With compassion and sadness,” as the blog post put it, “Woodland Park Zoo's keepers and animal health staff made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her.”
The keepers’ sadness is certainly genuine. Whether the institution they work for treated Watoto with compassion and the good judgment that makes compassion meaningful, is another question. Rather than the unpredictable but inevitable tragedy that zoo officials have tried to portray, Watoto’s passing was a death foretold and possibly avoidable.
But Woodland Park refused or neglected to take several measures that might have prevented it — measures urged not just by its critics, but by the much-touted task force it convened last year to review its embattled elephant program.
Elephant advocates and other critics slammed the task force for its lack of elephant specialists and shortage of animal-care experts. The zoo nevertheless trumpeted one of the panel’s findings, that the three elephants received “excellent care” — without going into the fine print. That fine print included these recommendations:
- If it can be done safely, reintegrate Bamboo and Watoto to reduce isolation and improve the social welfare of the herd. [The dominant Watoto did not get along with Bamboo, the zoo’s senior Asian elephant. Such conflicts can be fatal, so the two were separated. Because Woodland Park’s elephant house isn’t designed to accommodate such separation, this caused both – Bamboo especially – to be isolated and confined.]
- If reintegration cannot be done safely, WPZ should consider transferring one elephant to another AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums]‐accredited facility that will provide a healthy and high quality environment.
- Upgrading cameras in the barn to allow 24‐hour monitoring and data collection of the elephants.
On that last score, the cameras, which don’t record effectively at night, apparently were not upgraded — even though the zoo’s last elephant fatality, young Hansa, likewise succumbed overnight after appearing healthy the day before. Cameras weren’t deployed in the yard, where Watoto was found. There’s no knowing when she went down; the zoo has declared that its “night keeper staff routinely checks on animals throughout the night.” But zoo officials will not say when keepers last checked on Watoto, or answer any other questions.
When elephants stay down too long, their enormous weight crushes their lungs and other organs. Elephants in Los Angeles and other zoos have recovered after going down and being lifted, often by local fire departments. The zoo likewise won’t say whether it considered or tried to bring in the fire department.
On the question of transferring one elephant, Woodland Park’s actions (or inaction) seem even more problematic. Watoto, the lone African elephant in an Asian group, was the obvious candidate.
Housing African elephants with Asians goes against good practice and AZA recommendations for several reasons: The two species are temperamentally and behaviorally different, though Watoto nevertheless proved a good “auntie” to baby Hansa. African elephants can be asymptomatic carriers of a herpes virus that’s deadly to young Asians, and which did in fact kill Hansa. Watoto once tested positive for the virus, but this result was later declared a false positive. And conflicts between female African and Asian elephants (e.g. Watoto and Bamboo) can be fatal for the latter, because only the Africans have tusks.
Last spring, WPZ received an invitation from the sanctuary that elephant advocates would most like to send Watoto to: Ark 2000, operated by the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS, not to be confused with our local Progressive Animal Welfare Society). Fueled by wealthy donors and a fat corporate-espionage legal settlement with the Ringling circus operation, PAWS has expanded greatly since it was founded in 1984 by an ex-trainer as a refuge for Hollywood’s animal has-beens.