I am sympathetic to those advocating for the Woodland Park Zoo to shutter its inadequate elephant exhibit and move its inmates to more humane sanctuaries. But I’m not sympathetic to stupid defamatory writing:
While the immediate cause of Watoto’s collapse will not be known until a medical examination is complete, it is hard to escape the sense that this was a preventable and premature death, and one for which the community bears a collective responsibility.
Shorter Seattle Times: “It would be wrong to speculate on the cause of Watoto’s death, but we’re going to do so anyway.”
And the editors don’t stop their uninformed opinionating there. In maligning the Woodland Park Zoo for “keeping the world’s largest land mammals in confined spaces, in inappropriate climates,” the editors point out: “In the wild an elephant might live 20 years longer.”
Okay. Maybe. But 20 years longer than what? Captive elephants in general? Woodland Park Zoo elephants in particular? Watoto herself? I mean, if you’re going to burden Seattleites with collective guilt for the “premature death” of Watoto, I presume you’ve got the elephant actuarial tables to back you up. Well, no:
The researchers found that the median life span for African elephants in European zoos was 16.9 years, compared with 56 years for elephants who died of natural causes in Kenya’s Amboseli park. Adding in those elephants killed by people in Africa lowered the median life span there to 35.9 years.
Again, I’m all for moving Woodland Park’s elephants to more elephant-appropriate facilities. But let’s be fair. Compared to her fellow African elephants, 45-year-old Watato lived a pretty long and healthy life—nearly three times the median lifespan of your typical zoo elephant, and almost a decade longer than the median life span of elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli park. So given these numbers, it’s not even accurate to characterize Watato’s death as statistically “premature,” let alone blame Woodland Park zookeepers for it.
Also, it’s just one elephant. Hardly much of a statistical sample.
Yes, in the wild, elephants can live to be 70. But the oldest documented human was 122-year-old Jeanne Calment of France. So to say that Watoto “might” have lived 20 years longer in the wild is kinda like saying that recently departed 89-year-old Lauren Bacall “might” have lived 30 years longer in France. She might have. But it wasn’t likely.
The first rule in reading a Seattle Times editorial is that when they use a number, they’re probably using it deceptively (or at least, wrong). But the irony is, this deception wasn’t even necessary. First, just look at those median life expectancy numbers: Zoo elephants live less than half as long as those on African reserves, and less than one-third as long as those wild elephants that die of natural causes. That’s awful! And a powerful indictment of elephant zoo captivity on its own. Second, go to Woodland Park Zoo. Take a good hard look at the elephants. Then take a good hard look at the size of their enclosure. Tell me if that looks right to you?
But barring some sort of damning evidence from the medical examination, Watoto’s death at age 45 is about as strong an argument for shutting down the zoo’s elephant enclosure as the sale of the estate-tax-exempt McBride “Farm” is for repealing the estate tax. Even when the facts are on their side the editors would obviously rather manipulate and mislead their readers than treat them with respect.