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Zoo Elephants' Migration From Seattle to Oklahoma Challenged in Two New Lawsuits

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 30, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Animal welfare advocates have filed two lawsuits challenging the transfer of a pair of Asian elephants from a zoo in Seattle to Oklahoma City, claiming the move violates the state constitution and federal Endangered Species Act.

The transfer comes after years of controversy surrounding the fate of Seattle's elephants. The Seattle zoo, Woodland Park, agreed to end its elephant display last year, following several years of public pressure. Now, the future home of the elephants is subject to contention. The zoo plans on transferring them to Oklahoma City, where they would be housed in a recent addition to that city's zoo, while advocates argue the elephants should be sent to a sanctuary.

Dumbo Drop? Night Quite.

Animal welfare advocates have placed increasing public pressure on zoos over the past years to improve the conditions of elephants in captivity. Displays with limited open space, limited veterinary care and small numbers of animals cannot meet the needs of the large, social animals, advocates argue. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accreditation body, has asked zoos to either expand their facilities, or find new homes for their elephants. The Woodland Park Zoo went with relocation.

In opposition to the move, the Elephant Justice Project has filed two concurrent lawsuits in state and federal court, arguing that the transport of Bamboo and Chia to Oklahoma puts them in imminent danger, in violation of federal law, and that the Seattle zoo lacks the power to dispose of the animals. The move, allegedly to occur in uninsulated trucks, would take over forty hours. This would constitute illegal "harassment" of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, the suit alleges. Before it can transfer the animals, the zoo must first obtain a permit from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, requiring public comment and scientific review, the Elephant Justice Project claims.

Who Owns the Elephants Anyway?

The group's partner suit in state court challenges the zoo's authority to transfer the elephants. Under a 2002 agreement, the zoo's management and operations, as well as its property, were transferred to a nonprofit corporation who took over responsibility for the zoo from the city. This agreement, the suit alleges, was in excess of the city's authority, as the bill authorizing the transfer of management did not allow for the transfer of the zoo's property. Such a transfer, the Elephant Justice Project argues, violates the state constitution which prohibits gifts of state property to private entities.

Not so, says the zoo, which noted in its response that the zoo has transferred animals, from lizards to lemurs, over 53 thousand times since 2002.

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