Blogging About Critters Since 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seattle Zoo's Elephant Breeding Under Fire

Woodland Park Zoo was in the news a short while ago over the death of its sweet 6-year old elephant baby Hansa from a herpes virus. We live in Seattle and followed her life story, including the competition for her naming. Unfortunately, not being a fan of zoos, I never saw her in person.

Apparently, the zoo is preparing to impregnate her mother again through artificial insemination. And some animal activists are mad.

Animal rights activists called Woodland Park Zoo's elephant breeding program "reckless" and "irresponsible," and demanded Tuesday that zoo leaders abandon plans to artificially inseminate an elephant next month.

The group wants to stop the insemination of Chai until a treatment or cure is found for herpes, the virus that killed the elephant's 6-year-old offspring, Hansa, in June.

"It is just common sense. You have a contaminated facility. There is a very, very good chance you will have another death," Catherine Doyle from In Defense of Animals told zoo board members.

Woodland Park zookeepers are hoping to inseminate Chai, 29, an Asian elephant, next month with sperm from an Asian bull elephant named Rex that lives at African Lion Safari in Ontario, Canada. Two elephants have died from elephant herpesvirus there.

It would be the fifth insemination attempt since Hansa was born in November 2000.

Zoo leaders responded swiftly Tuesday, noting that they are committed to the elephant breeding program, and have seen no scientific evidence that has persuaded them to change their plans.

"There is always a risk in everything," Deputy Director Bruce Bohmke said. "If you have one death, that doesn't make it more likely that you will have another."

While the activists accused the zoo of wanting another baby elephant to attract more visitors and increase revenue, Bohmke said breeding programs are important to give zoo visitors an appreciation for the animals, teach them about their endangered environments and motivate them to donate to conservation efforts.

"The idea of not breeding elephants doesn't make sense. Let's work on the problem. The only way we can answer these questions is through breeding and research," Bohmke said.


I'm really torn up about this. I have visited the Woodland Park Zoo and, unless things have changed, it's a good place with basically good people. Woodland Park has been undergoing a real transformation in the 13 years I've lived in Seattle. They are working very hard to improve living conditions and really create habitat for their wild charges. It's really a beautiful place and, while there were still animals in too small enclosures when I was last there, there is renovation every year.

But the question about the elephant breeding program is more than just about Woodland Park, by far a superior zoo to many "zoos" we hear about. It's about the role of elephant breeding, or any breeding of a wild animal. I don't like it myself. I wish that we didn't have to breed elephants in captivity in order to bolster hopes for the species in the wild. But I don't know what to do. A captive elephant is not a wild elephant, I understand that. Its behavior and expectations are different. It is dependent on humans. But, if it's done responsibly, then zoos may be the last stand against a total annihilation of the species and the gene pool.

I do take issue with Boemke's statement that zoos educate people about wildlife and the need to protect habitat. I have never been to zoos with respectful people who truly appreciate the animals. It's more the case of a parent or teacher taking some snotty, noisy kids to the zoo to occupy them. They gawk and laugh at the animals. The adults suck too. One time we were in the nocturnal section which had a sign saying to be quiet because these were NOCTURNAL animals. And who was flapping his jaws loudly? Not the kid, but his dumb dad.

I haven't been back.

Photo by Gertie_DU.

1 comment:

Helena Akerlund said...

I agree with you - I have the same conflicting feelings about zoos; don't go often and when I do I arrive hopeful and often leave depressed. What you haven't really touched on here is the point of breeding endangered species in zoos in the first place: If it is to promote education and conservation of their wild relatives, then is breeding really essential? The CEO of conservation organisation World Land Trust, John Burton, recently wrote an interesting piece about zoos breeding programmes, pointing out that there are rescue centres all over the world full of wild caught animals that for some reason or other can't be re-released. Would it not make sense for zoos to help out by taking on a few of these, instead of having breeding programmes? I agree with most of what he said, albeit for slightly different reasons, and would be interested to hear what others think: Too Many Orang-utans