The zoo was seeking voter approval of a $125 million bond to overhaul aging zoo buildings. The baby Asian elephant starred in campaign commercials that promised a yes vote would “keep the animals healthy and safe.”
Little Samudra helped soften voters’ hearts and open their wallets as they said yes to the bond.
Four years later, the zoo has made little progress in using the money to make the elephants’ lives much better. Zoo officials promised a major expansion of the elephants’ exhibit—and that hasn’t even broken ground.
Another key promise: The zoo would set aside money for a large offsite elephant reserve, where the animals could roam freely.
The zoo hasn’t yet established a reserve. The Metro Council, which oversees the zoo, will vote Dec. 18 whether to buy 240 acres in Clackamas County.
Meanwhile, zoo officials have quietly made a dramatic change in strategy: Rather than simply give the elephants a second home, the zoo wants to buy a second herd and begin a new, aggressive breeding program, according to zoo documents reviewed by WW.
The zoo now plans to more than double its elephant population in the next decade—from eight elephants to as many as 19—and keep a second herd at the offsite reserve.
The Oregon Zoo is doubling down on its elephant-breeding program even as other zoos from Detroit to San Francisco cease to keep elephants at all, and controversy grows about how the animals are kept in captivity.
“We’ve always been very clear on our vision of breeding elephants,” says Oregon Zoo director Kim Smith.
Zoo officials say they are trying to help save an endangered species.
But the decision also comes as the zoo finds itself under growing financial pressure. Attendance has dropped 6 percent since 2010.
And elephants—what zoo officials in internal documents call “charismatic mega-vertebrates”—drive ticket sales: The zoo set new attendance records after the birth of Samudra, and crowds ballooned even more in 2009 as the baby grew.
Scrutiny of the captivity of elephants—and the Oregon Zoo’s history of breeding them—has grown following an investigative story by The Seattle Times on Dec. 1-2 that traced a bleak history of elephant breeding in U.S. zoos.
Metro President Tom Hughes, who signed off on optioning reserve property in 2011, says he approves of doubling the herd.
“I wasn’t here when we designed the bond title,” Hughes tells WW. “It’s an evolution of our view of what the mission of the zoo is for our elephants.”
The 2008 zoo campaign leveraged affection for the elephants to sell voters on the $125 million construction bond for a wide range of improvements.
Zoo officials say they will begin construction next year on a $53 million expansion of its main elephant exhibit, from 1.5 acres to 6 acres.
The elephant reserve was also a big part of the pitch to voters.
Then-zoo director Tony Vecchio talked about creating the reserve to give elephants more space and freedom, trucking them to the zoo occasionally. Vecchio said Packy would return to the zoo only for his birthday each April.
But after voters approved the bond, zoo officials drew up a business plan that envisions maintaining two separate groups of elephants for breeding.
“The model assumes a robust reproductive rate with births occurring every four years per reproductively viable female,” the plan reads. “To develop an unrelated multigenerational matriarchal herd at the remote elephant center, the zoo plans to acquire four unrelated females.”
The plan calls for two bulls—Tusko and Samudra—to live on the reserve. Zoo officials say the current female elephants would stay at the zoo, and not visit the reserve. They won’t make any promises about Packy.
Zoo officials say the business plan that followed voter approval of the bond is a refinement of their elephant strategy.
“I would say it was better defining the plan,” says Mike Keele, the zoo’s director of elephant habitats. “It’s not about the amount of space; it’s about the quality of space.”
That comes as news to Vecchio, the former zoo director, who helped convince voters to OK the bond measure but left before the zoo worked out its business plan.
“That is not one we had talked about,” says Vecchio, now director of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida. “I wish I was still there to have these arguments.”
The zoo has optioned a dry lakebed in Clackamas County owned by Portland General Electric, priced at about $1 million.
But the zoo faces several shortfalls in funding the reserve.
Estimated capital costs for the reserve are $10.2 million—but the portion of the bond budgeted for the project is $7.2 million. The breeding plan requires another $1.5 million to acquire new female elephants.
Minutes from meetings of the zoo bond oversight committee show zoo officials haven’t figured out where they will get the estimated $800,000 annual operating costs for the reserve once it’s built.
The measure never committed Metro to follow through.
“I knew the bond-measure language was slightly fuzzy,” says Courtney Scott, a Portland photographer and elephant activist. “But I was willing to take a chance.”
Oregon Humane Society executive director Sharon Harmon, who supported the 2008 measure, says she’s frustrated by slow progress.
“I don’t think it’s enough,” Harmon says. “Of course we’d like to see it happen yesterday, and elephants frolicking on 400 acres. If I was an elephant, this sure is taking a long time.”
The Oregon Zoo created a public-relations nightmare around the birth of its newest elephant, Lily, born Nov. 30, by failing to disclose after the birth the calf is actually owned by an elephant rental company accused of animal cruelty.
In the past, zoo officials have been transparent about the ownership of baby elephants. In the 1980s, for example, the zoo was open about the fact a baby elephant born here was owned by—and destined for—the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
But following Lily’s birth last month, zoo officials said she was destined to grow up at the zoo’s new elephant exhibit.
It was The Seattle Times that broke the news following Lily’s birth that the Oregon Zoo had a breeding agreement with Have Trunk Will Travel, a California-based elephant rental company that has been accused by animal-rights activists of cruelty to its herd.
“We felt that it was known,” Smith now says. “Twenty-20 hindsight, you’d go back and make that more clear.”
(The Oregonian had twice reported Have Trunk Will Travel’s ownership claim to the calf. But the newspaper didn’t tell readers the company rents elephants for movie productions, parades, corporate trade shows and weddings. Nor did the newspaper tell readers about videos—easily found on the Web—posted last year by animal-rights groups allegedly showing the company’s trainers using electric prods on elephants.)
Have Trunk Will Travel owners have not returned WW’s calls for comment but have told The Oregonian they have a good record with animal-welfare regulators. They also say they want Lily to remain at the zoo.
The zoo is now trying to buy the newborn elephant, but officials won’t comment on that or talks to obtain Tusko, Lily’s father, owned by the company and loaned to the zoo for breeding purposes.
It could be costly. The Seattle Times reported Have Trunk Will Travel in 2008 charged the Houston Zoo $500,000 for an adult cow and $100,000 for a calf.
Zoo director Smith won’t say how much the zoo is willing to pay now that she has already promised the baby will never leave.
“We’re not discussing that negotiation,” she says.