A news blog for Seattle's Phinney Ridge and Greenwood neighborhoods


Lily Tomlin says keeping elephants in zoos ‘cruel’

April 27th, 2009 · Comments

Actress Lily Tomlin today said keeping elephants at any zoo “is selfish and very cruel.”

After performing in Tacoma last night, she spoke at a press conference at the Phinney Neighborhood Association this morning because she wants Bamboo, Chai and Watoto from Woodland Park Zoo sent to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, where they would have room to roam. She says the one-acre enclosure at WPZ is much too small for an animal that’s meant to roam up to 10 miles a day.

Tomlin says she gradually became interested in the plight of elephants in zoos over the last few years, and began educating herself. After seeing videos and reading medical reports from various zoos, she became convinced that elephants should not be kept in zoos.

“I realized common-sensically that zoos could never meet those needs… simply because of lack of space. There simply is not enough room at the Woodland Park Zoo for the animals to live and thrive.”

She says elephants need a large space to walk around to relieve the pressure on their joints. Otherwise, they can develop arthritis and severe foot disease.

Alyne Fortgang with Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants (FOWPZE) says that when she heard Tomlin would be in town, she contacted her publicist. “I just asked and she said yes. I think her words were, ‘I’ll do anything I can,'” Fortgang said.

Fortgang says WPZ gives good care to its elephants, but without changing the core issue of lack of space, they’ll continue to get foot disease and be bored. Fortgang says that while the zoo claims they want to educate children to help protect elephants in the wild, what they’re really doing is “teaching children that it’s acceptable to keep elephants in bad conditions.”

Tomlin visited Woodland Park Zoo for the first time this morning and said the elephant enclosure and the animals’ behavior was exactly what she expected after reading reports and seeing video provided by FOWPZE.

“I know so much about elephants that it’s always grim,” Tomlin told me after the press conference. “I didn’t expect to see much. I just knew what it would be.”

Tomlin said she’s aware that some people would write off her interest as just a celebrity stunt.

“It’s true I am a celebrity and it’s true I’ve never scraped dead tissue off an elephant’s painfully infected foot, and I don’t know why anyone would be able to do that over and over again without asking why it happens,” she says.

She says she loves Seattle, and visits often to perform and see friends, but can’t imagine why such a progressive city can’t figure out a better way to educate people about elephants.

“Several major zoos around the country have already closed their elephant exhibits because they know they do not work,” she says, citing zoos in San Francisco and her hometown of Detroit. “The net result of keeping elephants in zoos is mostly death.”

Tomlin would prefer to see some kind of state-of-the-art virtual elephant exhibit at WPZ to teach people about elephants. “Kids have never seen a dinosaur but they know as much about dinosaurs as they could possibly know about any animal in the zoo,” she says. “I’m really here to try to reach more people. To me it’s just a black and white issue… to do the right thing.”

After the press conference, Woodland Park Zoo sent this statement:

Lily Tomlin may know comedy, but she doesn’t know our elephants at Woodland Park Zoo.

Ms. Tomlin has voiced her desire to have us truck our elephants 2,500 miles from their home here in Seattle to a sanctuary in Tennessee, despite having no firsthand knowledge about the excellent care provided for our elephants.

As an accredited institution of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), Woodland Park Zoo meets or exceeds rigorous AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. These standards are more stringent than those of regulatory agencies and USDA, making them the highest standards for elephant care that exist.

Our elephants are healthy and receive the highest quality care from experienced elephant-care experts and board-certified veterinarians, with approximately 160 combined years of elephant management experience. The zoo’s general curator is an expert in elephant reproductive physiology; and our elephant curator has more than 25 years working in elephant programs and is an administrator and instructor for Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) “Principles of Elephant Management” course.

We ensure the needs of our elephants, both physical and psychological. We provide our elephants with excellent nutrition, exercise, veterinary care, and environmental enrichment that provides exercise and mental stimulation in an award-winning naturalistic exhibit.

Woodland Park Zoo and AZA-accredited institutions are dedicated to keeping elephants from becoming extinct. Elephants are under extreme pressure from habitat loss and poaching. The most widespread and difficult issue to tackle in elephant conservation is human-elephant conflict, particularly in Asia.

In AZA-accredited zoos, these awe-inspiring animals are a vital link to educate visitors, help visitors make emotional connections, and change behaviors that positively impact elephant and other wildlife conservation. If elephants can only be seen by limited numbers of people in the wild, and we don’t see them or learn about the danger to them, these magnificent animals will disappear forever from our planet.

For more information about Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants, visit www.zoo.org/elephants/index.html.

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