“The City’s elected officials have the power and the moral authority to make decisions….like the City Council of Toronto, they can send the elephants to a home where they will find new freedoms, and deep contentment.”

A general feeling among former Woodland Park Zoo staff members I’ve contacted regarding Watoto’s death can be characterized as a sense not only of sadness at her passing, but also of the unhappy life she had.

Like every other zoo elephant, Watoto should never have been abducted from her mother, and never suffered the pain and indignities that is so common among zoo elephants. We can only be grateful she has been spared the anxiety of having to move to another zoo​​, as WPZ had intended, although it is true there are other zoos who could have offered her better conditions than at WPZ.

It is a matter of extreme unhappiness for me to have to say such a thing about WPZ. At one time the Humane Society of the United States gave WPZ its highest ranking. Today, it is listed as one of the worst for elephant care by Animal Welfare organizations.

It was always deeply frustrating​ when I served as Director of WPZ ​that I was thwarted by City Hall to search for a better home for the elephants. My suggestion in the early 1970s to move them to a place with more space and better climate was met with official and public hostility. I did quietly insure there was no elephant exhibit in the Zoo’s Long Range Plan, adopted by City Council in 1976, in the hope that during the life of the Plan the public’s attitude would shift, and elephants could enjoy a better home. But after eight years I resigned, frustrated at not being able to make progress on this issue.

Since then, Elephant Sanctuaries have appeared in America. They are models of care, expertise, affection and respect. They have introduced greatly improved methods of management and care. Zoos have belatedly adopted some of these progressive changes, though few have appeared at WPZ. Watoto died before she experienced one day of free choice and the company of her own kind in such a Sanctuary.

However, the opportunity for Bamboo and Chai to experience this level of freedom and care still exists. Seattle should honor the life and death of Watoto by continuing and intensifying the fight to send all the WPZ elephants to Sanctuary: to a home where they will be cherished, protected, and, most critically, esteemed as individuals.

The Zoo holds the animals only on behalf​ of the people of Seattle​. The City’s elected officials have the power and the moral authority to make decisions on the lives of the zoo animals that accord to the public ideal. Just like the City Council of Toronto, they can send the elephants to a home where they will find new freedoms, and deep contentment. It is what Seattle owes them, and what we all owe to Watoto, who endured such a poor life, from her first years to her death.

David Hancocks
Melbourne, Australia

7 Responses to “Thoughts from David Hancocks, former Director of Woodland Park Zoo, 1976 – 1998”

  1. Nancy Farnam on 04 Sep 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    Oh, if only David was still the director at Woodland Park Zoo. Neither the tragedy of Hansa’s or Watoto’s death would have happened.

  2. Katy Koivastik on 05 Sep 2014 at 11:29 am #

    This is a wonderful editorial worthy of a wider audience. I am wondering whether Mr. Hancocks would consider submitting it to the Seattle Times.

  3. Wendy on 05 Sep 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Well said, we do owe these amazing creatures, they deserve better.

  4. Debra Moore on 05 Sep 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    Many thanks to Dr Hancocks for his input. I recall his struggles on this issue and applaud his willingness to consider a better life for the remaining elephants. WPZ needs to wake up and think of the animals instead of their bottom line.

  5. cecile on 05 Sep 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    Wow David sure says it all. The people of Seattle want them sent to sanctuary, now the people that have that power need to listen.If not then the mayor and city council really need to step in and make it happen.

  6. JA Malone on 05 Sep 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Thank you to David Hancocks for taking this public stand. Dr. Hancocks you could do a great deal more I believe if you wrote op-ed pieces on this subject for broader audiences. I note that Oakland Zoo quite publicly supports elephant sanctuaries and yet does not offer support in individual cases, AZA politics no doubt. We need more voices from more people in a position to facilitate change, if change is to happen. And for many captive elephants in NA and around the world, it cannot happen soon enough.

  7. tracy on 07 Sep 2014 at 11:24 pm #

    Personally I am very disappointed that the Mayor consistently has his staff say that he can do nothing to help the elephants. I have received this response on the phone several times and in writing. It is very misleading and although he has publicly expressed sympathy for the elephants that is not enough. The majority of of people in Seattle, Washington, USA, North America, World want elephants out of Zoo’s and afforded some protection from poaching. Watoto died waiting for a chance at a life. Chai and Bamboo deserve sanctuary and the Mayor and city council need to listen to the people that voted them in instead of the zoo and their lobbyists, I doubt they all want to be picking up zoo doo when they get voted out.

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