Zoos are dynamic places of comings and goings, life and death, rich diversity and interdependence. They’re not unlike the savanna grasslands that cover Africa and sometimes burst to life on the movie screen.
“Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance,” the wise ruler Mufasa tells his son Simba in a scene from “The Lion King,” Disney’s animated classic.
Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is no different.
The zoo’s famous old red wolf, Graham, was euthanized last week, but his bloodline survives in the pups he fathered. Dozer the walrus arrived at the zoo last year, filling a void after the 2015 death of the legendary E.T., and he’s doing his best to perpetuate the marine mammal circle of life.
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Exhibits at Point Defiance have a life cycle, too. The 55-year-old North Pacific Aquarium closed last week, to be replaced this summer by the state-of-the-art Pacific Seas Aquarium.
And then there are the elephants, Hanako and Suki.
The pachyderm pair are matriarchs of the Asian Forest Sanctuary. Each has lived at the zoo more than 20 years, so they stand out as sturdy veterans.
Naturally, Tacomans are saddened by recent news that Hanako has cancer, and that treatment options are limited.
We sympathize with all who love Hanako, and we wish for the 54-year-old elephant (already past the average life expectancy) to spend what time she has left in pain-free contentment.
But in the big picture of animal welfare, the news of her health condition is bittersweet.
For years, Point Defiance has said it would phase out its exhibit of endangered Asian elephants when its two elderly residents die — a decision we commend — and now that transition draws closer.
Elephants are social animals that thrive in warm sunshine, spacious quarters and interaction with a herd. Despite its capable staff and adoring local fan base, Point Defiance simply can’t give elephants what they can get in the wild, in a large exhibit or at one of the country's two large animal sanctuaries.
Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo closed its elephant exhibit in 2015, sending the two last residents to the Oklahoma City Zoo. It followed a 2012 Seattle Times investigation that found desolate conditions for captive elephants, failed breeding programs and other problems in U.S. zoos.
At least two dozen zoos have shuttered their elephant exhibits in the last several years, including San Francisco, Detroit and Philadelphia.
Even Ringling Bros. circus, long criticized for inhumane treatment of its pachyderm performers, got with the program in 2016. Its last dozen animals now enjoy early retirement at a 200-acre preserve in Central Florida, joining the largest population of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere.
Ideally, any elephant in captivity should belong to a multigenerational herd at a facility with an effective breeding program.
At Point Defiance, Hanako and Suki are likely too old and cantankerous to benefit from a move, even if someplace would take them. A history of anger issues rendered them elephant non grata in the zoo community. (Suki, now 53 and long removed from her circus days, killed at least three people before coming to Tacoma.)
Give Point Defiance officials credit for their patience and compassion and for specializing in aggressive elephants; the zoo is nationally known for its “protected contact” facilities and training.
Now they say their goal is to shift “from caring for elephants to caring for another species in need of conservation support,” according to the zoo website. Those preparations can’t begin soon enough.
Hanako’s cancer was found in her foot; the zoo doesn’t know if it has spread because diagnostic equipment can’t handle animals that size. It’s unknown how much time Hanako has left, nor Suki, for that matter.
Before long, Tacoma will miss this magnificent, intelligent species, a fixture at the zoo since 1965. But it’s just another turn in the circle of life.