- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - A federal judge on Tuesday criticized conditions for elephants at both the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and the Oklahoma City Zoo but refused to block the transfer of two aging Seattle elephants to Oklahoma.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said Tuesday he was “deeply troubled” that the Oklahoma zoo won’t be able to offer Chai and Bamboo “the climate nor nearly the amount of space that independent experts have said is necessary for their well-being,” The Seattle Times reported (https://is.gd/r31kt4). The judge said their current Seattle home is no better.

Because neither of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries can immediately accept the animals or provide a multigenerational herd, the judge determined that moving the animals “is unlikely to result in any harm beyond that already incurred due to the very fact of Chai and Bamboo’s existence as captive Asian elephants in the United States.”

The Elephant Justice Project is trying to block the move. A lawyer for the Seattle group said a decision on whether to appeal will be made soon.

An appeals hearing is scheduled Thursday on last Friday’s ruling by a state judge who also refused to block the transfer. The Times said Woodland Park has been ordered not to move the elephants before then.

In the federal lawsuit, foes of the move argued that because Asian elephants are an endangered species, moving the two requires a permit under the Endangered Species Act. Woodland Park contended no permit is needed because the long-term loan of the elephants doesn’t constitute commercial activity.

Although no money is changing hands, Coughenour held that the transfer is part of a barter system under which members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums transfer animals and gain the benefits that come from new exhibits.

Still, the judge decided that since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with Woodland Park that no permit was needed, any Endangered Species Act violation was not “substantial.”

The judge also rejected the claim that the 2,000-mile trip to Oklahoma City by flatbed truck would be dangerous. While an elephant did die in transit between Chicago and Utah, on a move overseen by the company hired by Woodland Park, Coughenour said the company has successfully relocated more than 88 elephants.

On Friday, King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson said she didn’t think the activists could win a court case contending that the city of Seattle - and not the Woodland Park Zoological Society - owns the animals. She also refused to grant a two-week stay to delay the move.

Zoo CEO Deborah Jensen said after Friday’s hearing that she’s not sure when the actual move will take place. “It is important to move our elephants in a timely manner for their welfare. This decision allows us to move forward with our plans to place Chai and Bamboo with a new multigenerational family at Oklahoma City Zoo,” Jensen said in a statement Friday afternoon.

The legal action is part of the broader debate about whether housing elephants in zoos is humane, with activists arguing the animals need more space to roam than zoos can provide.

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Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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