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As Seattle eyes new operations pact with Woodland Park Zoo, animal rights activists raise concerns

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 11, 2021

The last elephants at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, including Chai, pictured here, were transferred to the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015. The Seattle City Council is considering a new agreement with the Woodland Park Zoo.  (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
The last elephants at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, including Chai, pictured here, were transferred to the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015. The Seattle City Council is considering a new agreement with the Woodland Park Zoo. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Some animal-rights activists raised concerns Friday about Seattle’s relationship with the Woodland Park Zoo, warning that a $250 million new pact proposed for the city and the zoo would eliminate public oversight of the zoo’s animal collection and ticket prices while increasing the zoo’s public funding.

At a meeting on the matter, some City Council members asked about those points and signaled they may make some changes before approving the deal.

Woodland Park Zoological Society, a private nonprofit, has run the city-owned zoo since 2002 under an operations and management agreement. But that agreement is scheduled to expire in February, and a new agreement proposed by the society and the Parks Department is attracting scrutiny, particularly from activists who battled the zoo for years over its elephants.

The controversy peaked between 2012, when a Seattle Times investigation found that elephants across the country were dying at double the rate they were being born, and 2015, when the society closed Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant exhibit under pressure from the activists, shipping the zoo’s two remaining elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Councilmember Debora Juarez called that episode “the elephant in the room” during Friday’s meeting, as her parks committee heard public testimony about the matter and then questioned representatives from the society and the Parks Department.

“We really ought to do better than funding an organization that takes wild animals and locks them up in cages,” Rachel Bjork, board president at the Northwest Animal Rights Network, told the committee, echoing several others speakers. “This proposal that’s before the City Council does take away any authority over the animals at the Woodland Park Zoo.”

The zoo’s president, Alejandro Grajal, assured council members that the animals are treated well, and representatives from multiple charitable organizations that receive free tickets from the zoo urged the council to approve the new deal, which would require the society to provide about $3 million in public benefits each year.

The zoo’s animal care is “second to none” and its exhibits promote wildlife conservation, Grajal said.

“I have seen the kind of difference (visiting the zoo) can make,” said Holly Dzyban, with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. “Being able to have a place to go where you can see things and experience animals that are out of your everyday experience and have your vision of the world broadened means a lot to kids in particular.”

Under the current agreement, the society has the authority to acquire, sell or otherwise dispose of the zoo’s animals in accordance with laws, industry guidelines and “any adopted acquisition and disposition policies approved by the city.” Councilmember Kshama Sawant cited the provision in 2015 when she sponsored an ordinance that would have directed the elephants Chai and Bamboo to a sprawling sanctuary.

The ordinance was rejected and the animals ended up in Oklahoma City, where Chai died about six months later, with records showing that she had suffered injuries, weight loss and other problems.

Under the new agreement, which would last 20 years, the society would have the authority “to determine the composition” of the zoo’s animal collection, “including breeding, acquisition, sale or other disposition.” The city would have no specific authority.

Also under the agreement, the society would have the sole authority to set ticket prices, whereas the current agreement says ticket prices “should reflect market rates for comparable attractions” and should not increase by more than the rate of inflation without the council’s approval.

Under the current agreement, the city agreed to pay the zoo $5 million for operations in 2002 and increase that amount each year by 70% of inflation, as measured by the consumer price index. Under the new agreement, the council would be asked each year to increase the amount by 100% of the inflation.

The city also provides maintenance support, paying $9.2 million this year for operations and maintenance, or about 20% of the zoo’s expenses.

Under the new agreement, the city would pay $9.7 million in 2022 and an estimated $250 million over 20 years. The zoo also receives funding from King County.

Grajal said Friday the society should have authority over the zoo’s collection partly because the society, not the city, owns the animals.

“(The society), not the city, is the expert in animal care,” Parks Department spokesperson Rachel Schulkin added in an email.

Juarez, Sawant and Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned the new language. Sawant said, “I do have real concerns about this change,” and Juarez added, “At the end of the day, the Seattle City Council and the community and the constituents and the public at large have to have some say,” at least about major matters, as opposed to the zoo’s routine operations.

The new pact’s admissions policy would be “in alignment with other city agreements,” like with the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society, Schulkin said.

With regard to taxpayer dollars, “The city wants to ensure that (the zoo) is successful and sufficiently funded to care for animals and offer public benefits to ensure access, especially for low-income families with children,” she said. “The buildings are city-owned, so it is in the city’s interest to ensure the zoo keeps pace with inflation.”

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