KRIS SHERMAN; The News Tribune

A grass-roots animal rights group wants a Tacoma elephant packed off to sanctuary in Tennessee.

They claim Bamboo, a 38-year-old Asian pachyderm at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, is neurotic, overweight and unable to properly socialize with herd mates Suki and Hanako.

Point Defiance officials admit Bamboo’s not exactly bosom buddies with their other elephants but say she’s neither sick nor problematic.

“I think she’s doing really well,” said Point Defiance deputy director John Houck.

Members of the Northwest Animal Rights Network disagree.

Bamboo’s August transfer from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to Point Defiance “denied her the opportunity to heal from a lifetime of confinement, boredom and other abuses,” according to a news release issued by group president Diana Kantor.

Network members plan to meet Wednesday with Seattle City Councilman David Della to discuss the possibility of moving Bamboo to The Elephant Sanctuary, a 2,700-acre preserve in Hohenwald, Tenn.

Woodland Park Zoo owns the 8,370-pound pachyderm, although she’s now housed at Point Defiance through the American Zoo & Aquarium Association’s species survival program.

It’s too early to know just how public or impassioned the Free Bamboo campaign might become. Northwest residents likely will recall the very public – and emotional – debate over the Western lowland gorilla Ivan. The ape, who grew up behind glass at Tacoma’s B&I Shopping Center, eventually went to live in a premier gorilla breeding and habitat facility at Zoo Atlanta 11 years ago.

But Northwest zoos have to date been spared the sign-carrying demonstrations and emotional battles over beloved elephants that divided cities across the nation in recent years.

So far, the Northwest Animal Rights Network has put up a “Free Bamboo Now” Web site and plans public relations campaigns, including the Wednesday meeting with Della, who chairs the Seattle City Council’s parks committee, Kantor said.

But the campaign could escalate into bus signs or possibly demonstrations at Woodland Park if the zoo doesn’t accept The Elephant Sanctuary’s offer to transport Bamboo to Tennessee and give her room to roam.

“It doesn’t take an expert to see Bamboo is suffering,” a message on the Web site reads. “Watch for yourself, the endless pacing. Shaking her head, like a child gone mad. It’s time to give Bamboo a life fit for an elephant.”

The site features a video of Bamboo as well as information on how to donate or get involved in the campaign.

Kantor couldn’t say exactly how big her group is. It has an e-mail list of about 1,300 and “a few hundred” paid members.

But the campaign she laid out appears similar to those conducted by larger groups in recent years to win removal of elephants from big cities like Detroit and San Francisco to huge sanctuaries in warmer climates.

The tussle involves two divergent views of how best to care for – and save – one of the world’s largest and most majestic of mammals.

David Hancocks, a former Woodland Park Zoo director who is well acquainted with Bamboo, says she “was one of the most sweet, natured, lively, bright and cooperative elephants” he ever met.

Now, he writes in a letter to Councilman Della, “Bamboo is a very different animal from what she used to be. Like so many other zoo animals around the world, her spirit appears to be broken.”

The only way to save Bamboo from a life of boredom and indignity is to move her “to a home that will allow her to flourish in a habitat most like she would have in the wild,” Kantor wrote into a letter to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association’s animal health committee.

Officials at Point Defiance and Woodland Park dispute that Bamboo is either unhealthy or unhappy.

She wasn’t as socially compatible with baby Hansa and her mother, Chai, as Woodland Park would have liked, said general curator Nancy Hawkes.

But in the end, sending a 38-year-old cow to live with two other elephants of about the same age in Tacoma made sense, officials of both zoos said. Woodland Park is set up for making babies; Point Defiance is equipped right now to care for nonbreeding Asian elephants.

Bamboo probably isn’t wrapping Christmas gifts for barn mates Suki and Hanako, but “they can see each other, smell each other and touch each other,” through the barn bars – and they’re not fighting, Houck said.

And if Bamboo isn’t hanging out in the same part of the yard with her adoptive sisters, she’s still getting her yard time, he added.

Houck and Bamboo’s keepers believe her head swaying and pacing will correct themselves with time.

“We have a pretty good track record,” he said. “What we absolutely hang our hat on is that we provide the finest level of care for elephants in North America.”

But the larger question of whether elephants belong in zoos will also be debated here.

Woodland Parks’ Hawkes believes there’s only one right answer to that. Having elephants in zoos, she says, allows people to see them, to love them, to identify with them.

“Elephants are a keystone species,” she said. “It’s pivotal to our conservation mission that we connect people with elephants. If you can get people excited about and interested in saving elephants, then you’ve saved a whole lot of animals.”

Bamboo’s bio

Species: Asian elephant

Scientific name: Elephas maximus

Age: 38

Weight: 8,370 pounds

Height at shoulder: 8 feet

Arrived at Point Defiance: August 2005 from Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle

Arrived in Seattle: From Thailand in 1968 as a 1-year-old calf.

Endangered? Yes. There are about 35,000 Asian elephants left in their native habitat, 10,000 of those are captive.

Indigenous to: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia

Habitat: Dense tropical forests and grassy plains up to 10,000 feet

Life span: 50-60 years

Diet in their natural habitat: Bamboo, grasses, leaves, roots, bark, fruit

Zoo diet: 80-90 pounds of hay per day; seven pounds of an alfalfa/mineral salts vitamin per day; fresh greens (fir boughs, bamboo, spring alder), apples, bananas, yams, onions and carrots

Bamboo’s annual food cost: About $10,000

One Response to “Animal rights group begs to move Point Defiance’s newest elephant”

  1. Jacob on 30 Aug 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Bamboo has had some problems with other elephants, but she’s not neurotic or overweight. Just because she doesn’t have a hundred acres to herself doesn’t mean she’s overweight. 8,370 pounds is not overweight for a female elephant. Besides, she’s in good care in a loving home. Her keepers have over 100 combined years of direct experience tending to the needs of elephants. I am sure she is just fine where she is right now.

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