By Sandi Doughton
Woodland Park Zoo’s two elephants were loaded onto a truck Wednesday and sent off to Oklahoma City after a federal court declined to block the move.
Within hours of a federal-court decision clearing the way for the move, Woodland Park Zoo’s two elephants were on the road to their new home at the Oklahoma City Zoo Wednesday.
With news helicopters hovering overhead and a few protesters weeping outside the zoo gates, two containers — each holding one of the multi-ton animals — were loaded onto a flatbed truck during the afternoon.
Accompanied by a convoy of zoo staffers and veterinarians, the truck pulled out at 6:15 p.m.
The 2,000-mile trip is expected to take about 40 hours. The $111,000 price tag for the move will be split between the two zoos.
In a statement, Woodland Park Zoo CEO Deborah Jensen said Oklahoma City offers a state-of-the-art elephant exhibit, excellent veterinary care and a multigenerational herd with which the Seattle elephants can socialize.
But activists, who battled nearly a decade to have the aging pachyderms retired to a sanctuary instead of being kept on display in a zoo, were bitterly disappointed.
“It’s been a tragedy that they’ve spent their whole lives in a zoo since they were babies, and it’s a tragedy that they’re going to die in a zoo without ever having one single day off display, being an elephant,” said Alyne Fortgang, of Elephant Justice Project and Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.
Bamboo, 48, and Chai, 36, were both captured in the wild and have lived in Seattle most of their lives.
Their departure brings an end to the city’s long and tumultuous relationship with captive elephants. Animal-welfare advocates and even some former zoo officials have long argued that the massive beasts are ill-suited to life in captivity. A 2012 Seattle Times investigation found that two elephants die for every one born in zoos.
Woodland Park opted to close its elephant exhibit after the death last year of a third elephant, 45-year-old Watoto, who collapsed in the yard and was euthanized.
Zoo officials picked Oklahoma City because it’s among a handful of zoos with active breeding programs for elephants. Chai and Bamboo will join a herd that includes a bull, two adult females and two youngsters.
Legal efforts to block the move came to an end with Wednesday’s decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not to grant the injunction sought by Elephant Justice Project.
Advocates also had appealed to Mayor Ed Murray and members of the Seattle City Council to invoke their authority under the zoo society’s 20-year operating agreement with local governments that provides about a third of its budget. Murray said he would have preferred the elephants be sent to a sanctuary and that he was disappointed by the selection of Oklahoma City. But neither he nor the council stepped into the fray.
The risk posed by the trip to Oklahoma City was among the issues brought up in the court documents. But a federal judge dismissed those concerns in an earlier ruling.
Jensen said the truck carrying the elephants will be escorted by eight elephant handlers, zoo staffers and veterinarians traveling in three vehicles. The convoy will stop every few hours to check on the animals and provide food. In between stops, the elephants will be monitored by cameras in their climate-controlled crates.
For the past two months, zoo staffers have been working to get the elephants comfortable with the crates, said Martin Ramire, Woodland Park’s curator of mammals.
When they arrive in Oklahoma City, Chai and Bamboo initially will be kept away from the other elephants for a 30-day quarantine. They will have their own, small outdoor yard. In the barn, they will be physically separated from the other animals. But all the elephants will be able to hear, see and smell each other.
When the keepers feel it’s safe, the Seattle elephants and their new companions will be allowed to touch each other with their trunks through the bars in the barn.
“During the introduction process, elephants work out a social hierarchy,” said Laura Bottaro, curator at the Oklahoma City Zoo. It could take days or months, she added. “We will follow the cues of the animals.”
A federal lawsuit by the Elephant Justice Project that argues that the move violates the Endangered Species Act has not been dismissed. A judge ruled earlier that he thought the activists might succeed on the question of whether the zoo failed to get a proper federal permit for the move.
But with the elephants already gone, it’s unclear whether the litigation will continue.