Watoto, a 45-year-old African elephant known to generations of visitors at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, died Friday, zoo officials said.
Keepers arrived at 7 a.m. to find the elephant lying on her side. They tried to lift her first using cloth straps and later with a piece of crane-like machinery, but medical staff decided it was futile and euthanized her. A necropsy was scheduled, but staff said they believe the death was due to old age.
“She’s a beloved animal by many of us — staff members, volunteers, visitors,” said zoo spokeswoman Caileigh Robertson. “Many of her keepers have worked with her for more than 30 years.”
Watoto, who weighed more than four tons and stood 9 feet tall, was one of three elephants at the zoo. She was born in Kenya in 1969 or 1970 and brought to Seattle as an orphan in 1971. Decades ago, before the zoo’s safety standards changed, she delighted crowds by walking along a railing as visitors patted her skin.
She lost one of her tusks in 2010 after getting it stuck in a restraint device.
While African elephants can live up to 70 years, the zoo’s chief operations officer, Bruce Bohmke, said 45 years is about an average life-span for elephants in the wild.
But Alyne Fortgang, a Seattle resident and longtime critic of the zoo’s elephant exhibit, said Watoto had aged prematurely in captivity. Her organization, Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, has argued for years that the exhibit should be closed and the elephants sent to a sanctuary in California.
“In the wild at 45 years old they’re still having babies,” Fortgang said. “Watoto was lame. She had arthritis, chronic bouts of colic and skin conditions, all caused by her environment.”
She also said that because of Seattle’s weather, the elephants spend much of the year indoors with little room to move.
Bohmke said there’s nothing to suggest that Watoto’s conditions in captivity contributed to her death. She had a healthy appetite in recent days and exhibited nothing that gave staff concern about her well-being, Bohmke said. She never had a serious skin condition or colic, and while she did have arthritis in one leg, that’s not uncommon among older mammals, he said.
Watoto died in the zoo’s one-acre outdoor yard, where the elephants have been spending their days and nights during the summer.
Poachers kill tens of thousands of African elephants in the wild for their ivory every year, but criticism of keeping elephants in captivity has grown in recent years. A 2012 review by The Seattle Times found that for every elephant born in a zoo in the U.S., two die, and mortality among baby elephants in zoos is three times what it is in the wild. Many zoos have closed their exhibits and sent the animals to sanctuaries, and others have remodeled their enclosures to give the creatures more space.
In 2007, the only elephant to be born at Woodland Park, 6-year-old Hansa, died of elephant herpes virus.