SEATTLE (AP) — Visitors flocked to the leafy enclosure at Seattle's zoo to watch the two elephants, Chai and Bamboo, as they used their long trunks to play with balls and snack on carrots and apples.
The elephants would sometimes exhibit other behavior. Chai would pace from side to side and bob her head up and down — a sign, animal activists say, of the stress of being confined inside the 1-acre area. It is common behavior, and a growing number of people feel the giant animals — hard-wired to roam free across thousands of square miles in Africa and Asia — don't have a place in American zoos.
Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo recently made the difficult and controversial decision to close its popular elephant exhibit and move Chai and Bamboo to a larger zoo in Oklahoma so they can join a larger herd. Others, like the Bronx Zoo in New York City, say they are moving in the same direction, but will wait until one or more of their existing herd dies. And zoos like Detroit have already retired their pachyderms to one of two U.S. animal refuges.
Many zoos can't give elephants the space they need. They are also social animals that prefer to live in a herd, but that is hard to provide as elephant numbers dwindle, both in captivity and in the wild.
As of December 2014, there were 159 African elephants at 39 North American zoos and 139 Asian elephants at 34 zoos in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Maryland-based Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The group In Defense of Animals says 21 zoos in North America have closed their elephant exhibits since 1991.
At the same time, national guidelines adopted in 2011 would require some zoos to close their elephant programs by 2017 if they cannot increase their herds and expand their facilities. Some North American zoos have as few as one elephant, said Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which drew up the guidelines. The new rules encourage a herd of at least three elephants.
Woodland Park Zoo, which has had elephants in its care since 1921, started discussing the future of its herd after a third pachyderm died in 2014. A community task force recommended in 2013 that the zoo bring in more elephants and expand its facilities, but zoo President and CEO Deborah Jensen said those goals were not achievable, in part because it's so difficult to obtain new elephants.
In the end, Seattle decided their best choice was Oklahoma, where 36-year-old Chai and 48-year-old Bamboo may become the old "aunties" of the herd, Jensen said.
Activists who protested Seattle's decision believe the right place for older elephants to "retire" is at one of the nation's two sanctuaries, in California or Tennessee. Toni Frohoff, director of In Defense of Animals' elephant campaign, said the Seattle zoo could have made a worse choice than Oklahoma, but she thinks the best choice would have been a sanctuary. Chai and Bamboo are currently in San Diego, where they were temporarily rerouted because of bad weather on their way to Oklahoma.
There's very little consensus — even among animal experts — about what is the right choice to make for the elephants currently in American zoos. Bringing more Asian or African elephants to this country no longer seems feasible and breeding programs have been minimally successful.
Officials in Seattle, which was forced into court over its decision to move its elephants to Oklahoma, say they did what they thought would be best. Jensen was frustrated with the intense focus on Seattle's decision.
"The question is: Are we going to share the earth with elephants?" she asked, noting that African elephants are being killed at the rate of 96 a day or 30,000 a year, for their ivory. "Sadly, I am pessimistic."
John Houck, deputy director of the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, has two Asian elephants, age 50 and 51. They are too dangerous to do well in a larger group and too old to move. After they die, Tacoma plans to replace them with another endangered species, perhaps rhinoceroses.
Looking out a decade or more, Houck does not see a future for Asian, and possibly African, elephants in this country. Keeping a small group of elephants in North America would require the birth of seven to nine calves each year. That is not happening, especially as more females become too old to reproduce.
During a recent visit to the Seattle zoo with her two small children, visitor Rebecca Young said she was sad to see the empty enclosure where Chai and Bamboo used to live.
"I hope they find joy in San Diego or Oklahoma or wherever they land," she said.