Reportedly, managers at Portland zoo are mulling a plan to permit public feeding of some of the animals housed there. It's been done before; who can forget when they sold stuff in "Animal Crackers"-like boxes, calling them "Animal Snackers"?
There was even an excrable television ad campaign: "oh gosh, oh gee, won't you have fun - feeding the animals one by one!". Good times, yes.
Perhaps they can see fit to bunch the idea - Sea World is dealing with a bit of fallout after a five-year-old was bitten by a dolphin when attempting to feed one, there; besides, with an elephant calf as a draw, it's not as though the zoo will need to go to great lengths to get people through the gates (at least until the parking meters are installed).
And in a spectacular burst of bad timing, the Seattle Times today published the first of a two-part tale of doom and gloom that will surely be a hit among the animal "Rights" crowd, with a catchy sub-title:
Zoos' efforts to preserve and propagate elephants have largely failed, both in Seattle and nationally. The infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is almost triple the rate in the wild.
Apparently stung by the failures at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, the "blockbuster story" is misleading and erroneous in a number of important aspects; among them the fact that the estrous cycle and gestation periods for Asian elephants were unknown until the early 1980's, when research in Portland elucidated them - this despite the fact that elephants had been held in captivity across Southeast Asia for over 3,000 years prior to the Portland research.
In other words, serious, informed captive breeding efforts could not be undertaken until about thirty years ago - and with a gestation period of 630-660 days, results take time.
Moreover, the "blockbuster" fails to consider as it builds a scoreboard of death the combination of natural circumstances and profound ignorance - the latter amply demonstrated at Seattle's own zoo. Although a normal part of the life cycle of the elephant, birth is no more guaranteed success than is the case for any other species: deformed tendon may render a calf unable to stand and nurse; breech-births (which in the case of elephants, means head-first entry into the birth canal) can, and do, occur. A head-first entry dramatically increases the likelihood of hypoxia or other events leading to nonviability; in some cases, both calf and cow die.
Childbirth, it should be remembered, was until recently a fairly common cause of mortality among women in the "civilized" world, and managers at New Yorks Burnet Park Zoo were astounded to find that it can happen among elephants. As has been noted here previously, this is one reason why it's a bad idea to preface an impending birth with a grand and glorious media campaign; it may blow up in managers' faces. At BP, the director and other staff lost their jobs as a result of public backlash precipitated by their zealous campaign.
Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo housed both genera of elephants, and while the "blockbuster" story makes considerable hay over the death of Washington state's only Asian elephant calf - at the age of 6-1/2 years - it completely fails to note that the cause of death, a form of herpes virus, is carried by African elephants. In a glaring example of poor reportage, they attempt to fix blame for the infection upon Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri - where Seattle had sent its Asian cow for breeding.
In point of fact, had the infection occurred at DPZ as suggested, it is likely that the calf subsequently born in Seattle would have succumbed at a much earlier age. In all probability, therefore, the calf contracted the virus at Woodland Park facilities, which affords a significantly more plausible explanation for its subsequent death six and a half years post-partum.
Rather, the "blockbuster" story opts for the grandstand wherever possible, as when describing the ankus (a tool used essentially as an extension of the human arm, and similar in design to an elephant tusk) as a long-handled, clawed-end training tool used to gouge, poke and strike elephants. Colorful, but wrong - and emblematic of the story itself.
It's worthwhile to note that Seattle will likely never have another elephant birth - having gone to a "hands-off" approach to elephant management ensures that, should they have an elephant pregnancy at some future date, they will be unable to intercede if, as is often the case, a first-time mother reacts violently following calving.
In that event, the Times will doubtless be there to characterize it as another example of the failure of captivity.