A petition that asks the Oklahoma City Zoo to send one of its older female elephants to a sanctuary now has more than 165,000 signatures, and the number continues to grow.
— KFOR (@kfor) September 8, 2016
I wrote about the elephant Bamboo here on Aug. 22. The 49-year-old Bamboo, obtained along with the now deceased elephant Chai from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle last year, has apparently had problems integrating into what zoo officials call a “herd.”
Bamboo has apparently been bitten on the tail and suffered a gash on her trunk when she was attacked by another elephant. She has also apparently attacked another elephant and has been isolated at times from other elephants.
The zoo has called the process of Bamboo’s integration with the other elephants “normal,” a claim strongly rejected by many animal welfare advocates and many of those people who have circulated and signed the petition. The zoo recently tried to put up obstacles to make it more difficult for media outlets and animal welfare advocates to retrieve records about the health conditions of its animals but has apparently relented on this issue.
The issue of how the zoo deals with open records requests, however, is a developing story. The zoo has at least one open records request pending—I placed it—and it remains to be seen how it will process it.
Zoo officials have also failed to respond to some of my larger questions and concerns about the conditions of the elephants. For example, can you actually consider an elephant exhibit at any zoo to replicate in reality the natural “herd” configuration of the animals? They are, after all, being held in captivity in small enclosures, which obviously brings with it a set of challenges and problems. At the very least, does the basic unnaturalness of zoo enclosures demand new language and definitions when we discuss issues such as “herd” dynamics or mating and breeding?
As Patrick Riley, the handsome, brash and sensational satirist of the immensely popular The Lost Ogle blog in Oklahoma City puts it about the elephants at the zoo, “It’s like they’re trapped in prison or something.”
I, along with another animal welfare advocate, founded the local organization Oklahoma Friends of Elephants (OFE) to help bring attention to the situation. You can find the Facebook page for the organization here.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the situation: The Seattle zoo closed its elephant exhibit like many zoos are now doing because it has become increasingly obvious elephants in captivity suffer more health problems and live in mental drudgery and hardship. (Circuses are also eliminating their elephant shows.) The 37-year-old Chai and the even older Bamboo were then sent to the OKC Zoo in 2015. Then Chai died of a blood infection. Another elephant, 4-year-old Malee, also recently died in captivity at the Oklahoma City Zoo. As records show, Bamboo has been attacked, isolated and lost weight in a “herd” integration process, as I will repeat again, the zoo calls “normal.”
Dwight Lawson, the OKC Zoo director who came here from Atlanta only a couple of years ago, seems adamant about keeping Bamboo instead of sending her to a sanctuary in Tennessee that is only about a nine-hour drive away from here. Lawson has a Ph.D. in biology. Why he’s remaining adamant on the issue remains somewhat of a mystery. So far, and he will get pressed again, of course, he refuses to debate the larger issue of keeping such large animals in small enclosures. He’s the one who went into the zoo business. Surely, he has a moral duty to explain his position as an academic.
What should we do about the 15,000 Asian elephants still in captivity? https://t.co/PLO1KcpHeF
— Elephant Sanctuary (@ELEPHANTSdotcom) September 1, 2016
Some proponents of zoos explain that by exposing people to larger, wild animals such as elephants it raises awareness and leads to empathy and concern. Elephants, in particular, are in distress in the wild because of poachers who kill them for their tusks, which are in great demand in certain cultures. Zoos can help prevent extinction of wild animals, proponents argue.
Opponents of zoos or those people who at least think larger animals need larger spaces make the point that a sanctuary system for wild animals makes more sense. This allows animals to live in more natural and larger habitats.
There’s some room for debate here, but Lawson seemingly won’t engage in it. Is he just a chief executive officer of a business seeking customers and corporate support from companies such as Devon Energy or does he still consider himself a scientist? That may seem like a loaded question, but it really isn’t. It seems like the main question not just for the OKC Zoo director but also for all zoo directors in larger cities.
In any event, there’s no real room for debate about Bamboo as I see it. She’s older. She seems to be in distress. She’s certainly not the rock star of the show at the OKC Zoo elephant exhibit. Why not simply send her to the Tennessee elephant sanctuary? Is Lawson and his Zoo Trust board, which includes OKC Mayor Mick Cornett, just trying to make a political point? The reputation of the OKC Zoo is on the line here as the petition grows daily with signees from around the world, and Lawson and Cornett seem intent on garnering as much bad publicity as they can for as long as they can for Oklahoma City. Pretty typical for this place.
Here’s the petition again.