A task force met on Thursday to study the health, care and future of elephants at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo.
Three elephants, all female, are considered by many to be vital parts of the Woodland Park Zoo. They inspire visitors to support efforts to boost populations in the wild, and they give scientists the chance to study their behavior and biology up close.
"I think they've got a great life here," said Bruce Upchurch, zoo collection manager. "We do everything we can to modify their habitat, and improve it."
Critics, however, said the animals are suffering in a cramped one-acre exhibit.
Although there was a successful natural birth at the zoo of a calf, Hansa, in 2000, that animal died of a virus six years later. Its mother, Chai, hasn't been successfully bred since.
"These elephants are suffering physically and psychologically, directly as a result of the zoo's inadequate elephant exhibit," said Nicole Meyer of In Defense of Animals.
Partly as a result of the criticism, the zoo's board created a task force that is charged with examining the health and care of the elephants and their future at the zoo.
Two of the elephants at the zoo are nearing the end of their life spans. Watoto is 44 and Bamboo is 46 years old.
"So, if the zoo is going to replace the current group of elephants with new elephants at some point, they have to start planning for that now," said Jay Manning, who co-chairs the zoo's task force.
"There are questions out there, here in this community and generally," Manning said. "Is it a good idea to have elephants in a zoo?"
Manning said that task force members are at the zoo to listen and learn. In fact, he took a tour of the elephant exhibit Thursday morning.
The task force won't have any recommendations on the elephants until August or September.