No on 26-96: The Oregon Zoo is not good for animals

By Eileen Stark of Portland, Oregon. Eileen is describes herself as "a landscape designer, freelance writer, conservationist and stanch advocate for animals." Previously, she worked for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Humans at the Oregon zoo are asking Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington county taxpayers to fund a $125 million bond measure. Before voting yes or no on Measure 26-96, let’s explore what the measure really is.

$125 million is a lot of cash, but is it really adequate? The measure is touted by the zoo and its cohorts as a be-kind-to-animals issue, even though their PR team regularly and loudly claims that the animals have it pretty good. Now that they want more money, however, they admit the exhibits and facilities are substandard and deficient and they fall just short of saying that the animals are suffering. They’re right; the zoo is a hole. But the measure doesn’t come anywhere close to providing the space and climate elephants need to stay healthy. At a time when more progressive zoos are closing or phasing out their pachyderm exhibits, they’ve added another calf. Alas, the timing couldn’t have been more politically perfect: Cute baby elephants sell tickets and votes.

What about accountability? The measure might help the animals in some ways; then again, it might not. The animals at the zoo unquestionably deserve the very best of care, but if the measure passes, no outside party would oversee how each dollar is spent and make certain the animals benefit. One plucky zoo employee has revealed in a current voter pamphlet argument that previous zoo bond measures did not deliver what was promised.

Captivity and cruelty is not conservation. Wildlife conservation is essentially about protecting and maintaining habitat, not the futile creation of artificial enclosures. At a time when scientists predict that up to a third of the earth’s species will be extinct by the end of the century, the number of species saved from extinction by zoos can be counted on one or two hands. Even Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio has acknowledged our inability to replicate wild animals’ natural conditions. Particularly for those creatures that migrate, it’s impossible. Had the measure included a vast exhibit for elephants, who normally walk up to 30 miles a day, it might have been more acceptable, although the cold, damp, pathological conditions they must endure here for over half the year can never be resolved. All of the Oregon zoo elephants suffer from severe and painful foot problems and let’s never forget the 2000 cruelty conviction of the elephant keeper who sadistically stabbed and beat Rose-Tu with a bloody bullhook, a sharp instrument used by circuses and some zoos to control elephants in captivity. Despite public outrage, the zoo refuses to curtail the use of such brutal “management” techniques.

With the zoo in such a bad state, all the money in the world won’t make it adequate and perhaps we should – can I say it? – phase it out. It’s been done before: Vancouver, B.C.’s bedraggled, main attraction Stanley Park Zoo went on the ballot as a referendum in 1994. That city’s citizens – and those unwilling to part with money they felt would be wasted – voted it shut. Its last resident, a lone polar bear, died in 1997.

An anonymous quote from a photo exhibit at the U of O a few years ago – “Tell me again: What’s the difference between a cage and a jail?” – pops into my mind again. Voting NO on Measure 26-96 will not make the animals suffer more. In fact, they might not even notice the proposed improvements; they’re too busy trying to figure out what they did to deserve a life sentence.

  • LiberalIncarnate (unverified)

    This was a difficult choice for me. Unfortunately, in American culture, zoos provide a means to educate the public on the other creatures that we share this world with and how to appreciate and preserve them. I am sorry, but television programs on OPB cannot possibly be as effective.

    If we were all wealthy enough to take trips to Africa and other areas of the planet where some of the most endangered species were to be found, then clearly this would be a better option.

    However, most of us will never go to such places. So, instead, we must rely on TV and the media to highlight the plight of animals if zoos cannot.

    I voted in favor of this measure.

  • UnrepentantOmnivore (unverified)

    Animals fall into three main categories: 1. tasty 2. cool to look at 3. meh (Sometimes groups 1 and 2 are the same, like for ducks.)

    I think the Zoo Bond will help maintain group #2, so I'm voting for it.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Zoos are one of the remaining places in the world where some species of animals will exist. So, now they are bad, bad places..? I don't buy the animal rights extremism of PETA.

  • (Show?)

    I went into this measure totally unsure of which way to go. Untimately I decided that I'd rather have the elephant exhibit phased out (seems kinda cruel), so it doesn't make sense to me to invest millions in expanding it now. I voted no.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    If a zoo can't give animals spacious and humane living conditions it should get out of the business of caging them. The Wild Animal Park at Escondido should be considered the minimum standard.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    Pro measure 26-96 ads point how appalling the conditions for many zoo animals are and have been for quite a while. So they are only now becoming aware of the misery these animals have been living in?

    I agree with this post’s author, vote no and send a message that it is time to completely reconsider what the Portland Zoo’s mission should be. A scaled down zoo with animal exhibits native to the region housed in roomy, natural settings would be more humane and educational.

    No more polar bears, elephants, lions, and great apes psychotically pacing back and forth in cramped, miserable living conditions alien to their native habitat.

  • Jiang (unverified)

    Everyone says that volunteerism over full-time staff positions is naive, stupid and unprofessional, but- particularly in Portland- you see the pattern over and over.

    The give-away is that the full-time position is a dream job for people that believe in the cause. Historically it probably was filled by volunteers. The organization becomes popular, they get enough money and hire full-time staff.

    The full-time staff immediately seek to take control from the volunteers, guarantee their own revenue stream, and, if there's time left, get to the cause. The return on investment nosedives and the causes they are charged to protect suffer.

    The zoo is no different. Lefties of means go to school and study the management of green and progressive organizations and take full-time staff positions as if the funds were there to give them a career. Sometimes it is reasonable. But if ANY one or combination of the volunteers would do the same for free and is qualified to, you can not rationalize giving someone a career simply because they grew up expecting they would never have to walk into a "real" office and stand up for their supposed values.

    I've interviewed at Exxon in Houston and OSPIRG in Portland. I'm glad I didn't take an alien along to teach the difference between evil corporate America and good, progressive grassroots organizations. Exxon at least keeps an appearance of propriety, though it counts for naught. OSPIRG literally refused to give me a written job description as "that is proprietary". Right. I guess it's pretty much, how they can't write down "gen X, duh...".

    Just think it through, how much you love your cause. Think about the gut wrenching decisions whether to go on holiday or give a few more bucks. Full-time staff take a salary and buck for raises. You don't think alike. Don't be shocked when they don't take care of the cause well.

    Good business/marketing is selling widgets. This is about animals/the environment/people's lives, not widgets. Anyone that sees it as a job is part of the problem.

    And if you're looking at us as animals this would apply to politicians and pro fundraisers, so expect some flames!

  • Christine Lewis (unverified)

    The statement below is factually inaccurate:

    What about accountability? The measure might help the animals in some ways; then again, it might not. The animals at the zoo unquestionably deserve the very best of care, but if the measure passes, no outside party would oversee how each dollar is spent and make certain the animals benefit.

    The bond measure DOES include accountability, as quoted from the summary sent with the ballots:

    "Accountability requirements include: -Internal audits -Annual independent financial audit published in newspaper -Citizens' oversight committee to monitor spending and recommend project modifications if needed"

    Or read the measure text.

    [Disclosure: I work for the Oregon Zoo 2008 Campaign]

  • jrw (unverified)

    I'm sorry. I don't have a lot of sympathy for this argument, especially given the declining native habitat for these animals. I'd feel differently, perhaps, if pachyderms were thriving in natural settings--but they aren't, and these settings may be the best way to preserve them in the long run.

    Additionally, what's the comparison in lifespan between the wild and in captivity?

    The understanding of good management of exotic animals is growing yearly. Heck, just the changes in the understanding of the management domestic animals such as horses has taken leaps and bounds over the course of the years I've spent with horses (and speaking of animals out of their natural environment--Western Oregon is not a native habitat for horses, while Eastern Oregon is. Um, most of the way domestic horses are managed is not the optimal environment for horses. So does that mean we should stop handling domestic horses--oh. Yeah. PETA and its buddies think that, too.)

    Coming out against funding for the zoo on the grounds that it should be shut down and the critters sent elsewhere (and just where would that be, pray tell, especially since both natural and supervised sites sufficient to support this population aren't that great in number?) is just a PC way of saying you're too cheap to improve the facilities for the animals we currently have. And that, my friends, is lousy animal husbandry in any thinking person's book. We'd condemn anyone who used similar logic with regard to domestic animal management instead of exotic animal management.

  • jrw (unverified)

    One more thought.

    It's always notable to me that advocates such as Eileen Stark frequently cite little to no actual animal management experience, especially large animal management. I have more faith in the credibility of animal advocates who've actually experienced the capability to bond with animals of various species than I do in those whose experience is limited to perhaps one or two cats or dogs. The difference between pack predators, solitary predators, and different types of herd or solitary herbivores can be quite edifying.

    And anyone who's worked with an animal in training can very well tell you that the process goes both ways--while the human trains the animal, the animal also trains the human. Don't believe me? Think about it the next time your favorite critter solicits a treat from you.

  • (Show?)

    I'd love to see animal rights activists put up a Metro ballot measure requiring the phasing out of the elephant exhibit as a distinct issue, which I'd vote for in a heartbeat.

    Unfortunately a "no" vote to "punish" the zoo or "send them a message" also will punish a lot of other animals while not doing anything for the elephants; the proposed "fix" for the elephants seems inadequate but probably somewhat better than the current circumstance. You can argue that the mix of issues at stake in the measure is a manipulation by the zoo, but the converse focus almost exclusively on the inadequacy of the proposed elephant "fix" also is manipulative.

  • Yes on 26-96 (unverified)

    The "broken promises" thing is somewhat misleading. The zoo delivered on almost everything promised in the last bond measure. Problem was, construction costs wound up higher than expected. That wasn't due to bad planning, it was due to market conditions that made steel and concrete and labor more expensive than estimated at the time everything was priced out.

    That meant the zoo needed to raise additional money to finish everything promised last time around. And you know what? They delivered all of it, with the lone exception of a wolverine exhibit that was promised in the advertising (but not the bond measure itself) for the Great Northwest section. What about the new home for the lions? Under construction right now and set to open next year.

    BTW, this measure is about a lot more than elephants. It's about water conservation; a big chunk of the money will go to improve the zoo's water systems to consume a LOT less water than they do now. The polar bears will get a much better home, and the chimps will get a lot more living space. Finally -- and this isn't sexy, but it's important -- the on-the-brink-of-condemnation veterinary hospital and quarantine facility will be completely replaced.

    As for the elephants, they will get about four times the living space they have right now on Zoo grounds, a new facility that should address a lot of the factors that lead to widespread foot problems, AND an off-site sanctuary where they (and probably elephants from other zoos) will have room to roam.

    For those of you who actually give a damn about elephants, you really should put aside your philosophical problems with zoos and vote "yes." Get real: the elephants are the Zoo's most popular draw, and the Zoo is not giving them up any time soon. This is a really crappy time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, unless you WANT these elephants cooped up in the same substandard facilities for more years to come. Like it or not, their fastest path to life in a sanctuary is a "yes" vote on Tuesday.

  • Steve S. (unverified)

    The Oregon Zoo is a hole? Clearly Ms. Stark has not been at the zoo recently, if ever. I wonder if all the people who attend the zoo's Summer concerts would agree. The Oregon Zoo is a unique community resource, (read John Kitzhaber's arguement in favor of the bond in the voter's pamphlet). In a perfect world free from habitat loss, pollution, poaching and people who shoot animals from helicopters, animals might not need to live in a zoo. Unfortunately, the world we live in animal species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Putting animals in a zoo is not a solution to animal extinctions. However, the Oregon Zoo has demonstrated a commitment to natural resource conservation and creating a better future for wildlife through conservation education & direct action projects. The zoo bond is not about elephants as In Defense of Animals, would like you to believe. Improvements to animal exhibits including Asian Elephants is one of the reults of 26-96 passing. In addition, the plumbing & sewer system will be updated to prevent water loss & wastewater runoff & the outdated hospital facility will be improved to better care for the animals. The zoo's very strong Education department will be enhanced with a conservation museum. The bond includes a provision for a citizens' oversight committee to monitor spending. I urge you to vote yes on Measure 26-96.

  • (Show?)

    While I was an ardent supporter of PETA for years, I have gotten increasingly turned off by the fact that the organization picks some really unfortunate battles, given the realities of animal suffering that go unmentioned. I particularly got a bit tired of PETA when they attacked Michael Moore for being overweight. Seriously, people.

    As the mother of two small children, I go to the Zoo probably once a month. My children's understanding of animals and habitats has benefited from their experience, and while I've visited other zoo's where the animals are obviously distressed, I've never experienced that in Portland.

    My older son went to one of the Oregon Zoo's summer camps and came away with a surprisingly (for his age of 6) complex understanding of global warming, the loss of habitat for many species and the role that he can play in mitigating environmental damage.

    I am deeply affected by stories of animal abuse and suffering, and if I thought that this measure would contribute to animal distress, I would vote against it. I know I'm not going to base my vote on the despicable acts of one staff member who has been disciplined and rejected by the Zoo. Based upon my experience, I am, however, going to be voting for it.

  • Dave (unverified)


    I don't find this to be a compelling argument. The fact is that zoos serve as a valuable educational arena for the community. They do more to teach about animal appreciation and conservation by teaching kids to respect all of the animals on our planet. The proper way to address the problem is to fund it so that we can afford all the best we can give to the animals. I vote yes on the zoo.

  • ws (unverified)

    I figure the zoo is probably going to be around for awhile, so, might as well make it better. The opportunity to see animals first hand is important enough to justify the continued existence of zoos for the present. This opportunity for people, even though it can be a great hardship for the animals confined to zoos, hopefully strengthens people's interest in learning about the nature of animals in the wild and in supporting efforts made to improve their welfare there.

  • (Show?)

    Worst. Argument. Ever.

    Yes on 26-96. Let's give animals at the Portland Zoo the best habitats the community can afford.

  • (Show?)


    First, the zoo is hardly a "hole." It's currently ranked among the top three in the nation after the decline of the National Zoo in DC. Your argument totally ignores the role of this zoo in particular in the preservation of species. The Oregon Zoo is not merely a viewing zoo, but one of the premier breeding zoos. It's role in the survival of the species of the Asian Elephant in particular is simply too important.

    In addition, the Oregon Zoo is a national leader in environmental training and works hard to be cutting edge on maintaining the best habitats -- precisely why it needs this money.

    On a personal level, my son attended zoo camp for eight years then was a zoo teen for several more. He now wants to be a veterinarian. For my money -- my tax money -- an institution that can touch lives like that deserves our support. I was a very happy "yes" vote. Oliver Wendall Holmes said "I love paying taxes. With them I buy civilization." Civilization needs to protect wild species, and the Oregon Zoo does just that.

  • DanK (unverified)

    I agree Eileen. Zoos are anachronisms. It strains credulity to argue that a zoo can be the best way to spend money to preserve the environment.

    Curiosity can be a beautiful thing and should be indulged within reasonable limits. If people feel the need to see wild animals in captivity, I accept that. But I'm not going to share a delusion that says zoos are some essential part of the environmental movement.

    Metro's collection of pet elephants isn't helping save the planet.

  • Yes on 26-96 (unverified)

    I'm not going to share a delusion that says zoos are some essential part of the environmental movement.

    American Bison very nearly went extinct, and were preserved and re-introduced from captive herds. European bison (wisents) also owe their survival as a species to captive breeding in zoos.

    The red wolf was wiped out in the wild, and survives today because of captive populations preserved in zoos.

    The black-footed ferret is around today solely because of zoo breeding programs.

    The California Condor population dropped to 22 birds in 1987. They were all taken into zoos, protected, bred, and later released. Now there are over 150 birds in the wild.

    The Arabian Oryx went extinct in the wild in 1972. It's still around because of zoo populations, and there are now over 800 in the wild.

    Pere David's Deer would have gone extinct if it wasn't for zoo populations. The same goes for the Mongolian Wild Horse; there are over 200 in the wild now, and they are all descended from zoo animals that survived when the species was wiped out in the wild in the 1960s.

    Golden lion tamarins have rebounded in the wild since the mid-1990s, due in large part to reintroduction of zoo animals.

    Zoos also played a major role in bringing back the American alligator from the brink of extinction.

    Those are ten of the most high-profile examples of zoos saving (or playing a major role in saving) wild species from extinction. Whether they are "an essential part of the environmental movement" may be subject to debate, but it's indisputable historic fact that several species of large animal are around today solely because zoos were there to save them. Putting aside research, education, and the numerous field conservation programs that every major zoo sponsors, "last ditch hedge against extinction" seems pretty critical to me.

  • (Show?)

    DanK writes "Metro's collection of pet elephants isn't helping save the planet." No, Dan, it's only helping save the elephants! Yes on 26-96's comments show why zoos are critical to species preservation. And who knows what cure for what disease might be in that animal that, Whoops!, you just let get wiped out because the only conservation effort was in zoos you view as "anachronisms."

    Virtually every modern zoo is deeply engaged in species preservation. It seems that some folks here just don't understand that. Please, folks, do some research about the role of good zoos --including the Oregon zoo -- in PROTECTING our environment. Then vote yes on 26-96.

  • (Show?)

    Halfway. Second time charm?

  • There's a Better Way (unverified)

    High admission profits are not enough to sustain the unsustainable. Let's admit this doesn't work and come up with a new model that looks to the future rather than throwing good money after bad. We Portlanders seem to pride ouorselves on setting a higher bar - here's an opportunity to reject a low bar. Think of the next generations and Vote NO on 26-96.

    "Zoo revenues ended the year well above budget due to very strong attendance, equal to last year’s record of 1.5 million."

  • Brian Newman (unverified)

    Voting no on this measure will not help elephants or "send a message." The zoo's own polling shows an 85% favorability rating among regional voters and zoo visitors continually rank the elephant exhibit as their favorite exhibit in annual surveys. If the measure goes down, it will be due to the economy.

    Voting yes does two things for the elephants: 1. It quadruples the size of the elepgant exhibit making it one of the largest among zoos in the world. Further, it will replace and improve the indoor elephant area and will add much more naturalistic elements such as wallowing holes, larger pools, and grassy open spaces.

    1. The measure includes $12 million for a large off-site elephant reserve of several hundred acres. This space will allow the Zoo to continue their critically important breeding program for asian elephants and will allow the elephants to be moved between the zoo when they are on exhibit and to the reserve the rest of the year. Why is the zoo's breeding program important? Almost 100 elephants die in the wild per day prematurely due to habitat loss and poaching (yes, 100 per DAY, that is not a typo).

    I am heartened that people care about the zoo and especially the elephants. However, dont buy the PETA and IDA attacks against the Oregon Zoo. Voting no does not help the elephants and it will only delay the day when we can make critical improvements to improve animal health and safety.

  • Rick (unverified)

    I find the zoo's conservation argument to fall short when examined against the backdrop of a socialized and highly commercialized animal theme park (complete with noisy summer concerts, cotton candy, and t-shirts). This is not the sort of venue upon which serious conservation work is done, this is for entertainment value only. True conservation programs are about protecting animals in their native habitat and giving them the natural environment they need to survive in the wild, not captivity with music by Pink Martini.

    If the Oregon Zoo wishes to become a taxpayer funded wildlife conservation program, then so be it, but do it the right way. Exotic animal exhibits have no part in it.

  • Yes on 26-96 (unverified)

    socialized and highly commercialized animal theme park (complete with noisy summer concerts, cotton candy, and t-shirts). This is not the sort of venue upon which serious conservation work is done, this is for entertainment value only.

    Socialized and highly commercialized? Both at once? That's quite a trick.

    The money raised from concert tickets, food sales, merchandise, and so forth goes in large part to support the zoo's conservation programs, including the "serious" research and education and field programs it supports. Paying for them through revenue activities instead of tax money. It's pretty much the opposite of socialism.

    Let me stress again Brian Newman's point:

    The measure includes $12 million for a large off-site elephant reserve of several hundred acres.

    Those of you who think the Oregon Zoo elephants belong in a sanctuary should vote "yes" on 26-96. In addition to better, healthier quarters at the zoo, IT BUYS THE ELEPHANTS A SANCTUARY!!! The fastest, surest way to get the elephants into a sanctuary is a "yes" vote on Tuesday.

    Yes, it will be a part-time sanctuary for some of the elephants who will rotate between the sanctuary and the zoo, full-time retirement for others. It's not "move all of them to a sanctuary forever." But don't kid yourselves: a "no" vote will be interpreted as "voters don't want to spend that much money on the zoo right now," not "send the elephants away to a sanctuary." A "no" vote is a vote to keep the elephants right where they are.

    Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. "Move them all to a sanctuary" is not on the table and won't be on the table if the measure fails. "Move some of them to a sanctuary full-time and the rest part-time" is the offer right now, and it's the best chance the elephants will have in the next four to six years.

  • Yes on 26-96 (unverified)

    One more point about the $12 million elephant sanctuary built into the bond measure.

    The economy being what it is right now, land probably will be cheaper than in a good economy. Metro can afford a larger sanctuary for $12 million than will be possible when the economy rebounds. This isn't just about buying the elephants a sanctuary; it's about buying them a BIGGER sanctuary than will be possible if this measure fails and we vote on it again in a few years.

  • Rick (unverified)

    Yes, socialized and commercialized.

    Who do you think is being asked to finance a $125,000,000.00 bond measure?

  • Deva (unverified)

    There is no mention of a "large off-site elephant reserve of several hundred acres" in the ballot language. It states: "Outdoor space will increase from 1.5 to 6 acres." Is this so-called "sanctuary" in someone's head and if so, how many acres would it be -- 100? 300? 1200? How can we be certain it would even be built when other encloses that were proposed, funded by taxpayers, have not?

    While slightly larger enclosures may be somewhat better, how do we change one of the fundamental problems associated with debilitating food disease in elephants: a cold damp climate for much of the year? Both the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (with 2700 acres) and PAWS sanctuary in California offer climates much closer to Asian and African elephants' natural habitats. Portland can never provide this. But they sure do bring in the visitors/gawkers and a lot of $$. Call it what it is: a big enclosure, not a sanctuary.

    Finally, why does the Oregon zoo insist on using the antiquated, sharp ankus to "manage" the elephants? Using non-violent methods , like they do at the two sanctuaries mentioned above, would certainly go a long way towards some genuine PR.

  • Rick (unverified)

    The zoo is a big money loser for metro and the taxpayers have been stuck with the bill.

    Check out the Metro budget at their website. The final budget for FY 2007-8 shows the zoo budget was $30.9 million dollars but their revenue was only $15.2 million. So think of it as a $15 million dollar money loser, every year.

    Oh yeah, then there are the bond measures:

    1980 - $15,000,000 3 year levy 1984 - another $15,000,000 3 year levy 1990 - $5,100,000 permanent tax base approved 1996 - $28,800,000 bond measure

    and now in 2008, they want $125,000,000.00.

    I'm tired of shoveling money into a bottomless pit.

    Close the zoo.

    Vote NO on 26-96

  • DanK (unverified)

    Every accomplishment claimed by the pro-zoo crew is achievable without actually having a subsidized theme park full of miserable animals.

    If you like zoos, great! I don't. I voted no and encourage other animal lovers to consider doing the same.

  • eileen (unverified)

    This bond measure is NO GUARANTEE that the animals will be any better off -- it will not erase the pathetic, repetative pacing, depression and loneliness so common in "zoo animals." Claiming that these things don't exist and claiming that these animals, unlike us, don't get depressed from a longing for their own kind and the ability to pursue their own interests, is human arrogance.

    We can forcefully keep these captive animals in our zoos and madly breed them until the test tubes run dry. But if we don't preserve their habitat, there will be no wild places left to release them. While some captive breeding and reintroduction programs -- such as that of the California condor -- have been somewhat successful over many decades, most are still struggling, with birds dying from hazards in the human-dominated landscape.

    The way to save species is by preserving habitat. Putting this $125,000,000.00 towards that would be a much better way to spend it.

  • Victoria (unverified)
    <h2>I work at the oregon zoo all the money would be going to help with animal exhibts at the zoo and build a bigger elephant enclousure the oregon zoo is amazing. We do not keep are animals in cages we recreated their natural habitat in their encloure and the enclousures are quite big. Please do not vote no on this measure vote yes. Zoo's help educate people and they help breed succesful river otter breeding and elephant breeding and we have the # 1 penguin breeding program in the country</h2>
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