Say “Cindy,” and anyone who’s lived in Tacoma for a while knows who you’re talking about.
Cindy the elephant was one of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s most popular – and notorious – animals. And she’s the poster girl for why the zoo is on the right path in its decision to phase out its elephant exhibit when its current two residents die.
Cindy was a dangerous elephant with a history of aggression toward other elephants and keepers. The Point Defiance Zoo sent her to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, but she was returned after injuring a keeper there. By then Point Defiance had built a state-of-the-art elephant barn equipped to safely allow keepers to work with the animals.
Cindy died in 2002, but the zoo still has two elephants, Suki and Hanako. Both are considered dangerous to keepers and other elephants; Suki, a former circus performer, is known to have killed at least three people. They are too old to tolerate a move to another facility or sanctuary, even if one could be found that would take them.
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Suki is 50 and Hanako is 51, older than Cindy was when she died at age 40 suffering from crippling arthritis. They have lived longer than the average life expectancy of Asian zoo elephants (44.8 years in North America) and are on their last set of teeth. Hanako needs special, virtually “pre-chewed” food.
Modern zoo guidelines say that facilities should have at least three elephants for socialization purposes. But when Point Defiance tried to introduce a third elephant to Suki and Hanako, they reacted aggressively and she had to be removed. That was Bamboo, one of the Woodland Park Zoo’s two elephants that were recently sent to the Oklahoma City Zoo. (They are currently at the San Diego Zoo after a weather-related detour.)
If Suki and Hanako were younger and less dangerous, sending them to a bigger facility where they could interact with other elephants would be an option. But that’s not the case. They have been together for 18 years at Point Defiance, are reportedly thriving and should be allowed to live out their days there.
Zoos in Tacoma and Seattle aren’t the only ones phasing out their elephant exhibits. Elephants ideally should have a lot of space and interaction with a herd, which they can get at zoos with large elephant exhibits or at one of the nation’s two large animal sanctuaries.
With elephants being killed off in the wild at an alarming rate for their ivory – about 30,000 annually in Africa – maintaining breeding herds outside the continent is important for preservation of the species. But continuing to keep small numbers of these intelligent, social animals in zoos is no longer a good option. Point Defiance Zoo officials are right to start moving in a different direction.