Reject zoo deal that removes public oversight

Seattle needs a thorough conversation about the future of the Woodland Park Zoo. But a proposed 20-year contract would tie the city’s hands on how this 92-acre public asset is run, and subsidize a private nonprofit to operate it with little accountability. The city council should scuttle this proposal and insist on meaningful oversight and flexibility. 

Twenty years ago, an 8-1 council majority transferred zoo management to Woodland Park Zoological Society. The nonprofit got a free hand to manage operations and fundraising, while City Hall subsidized the operation and retained control over admission costs and animal policies.

With that deal up for renewal, the nonprofit has returned to ask for an even more favorable arrangement. The terms are far more than the council should sign away. 

The new requested subsidy includes more generous inflation adjustments that would provide $250 million over 20 years. The last deal has sent $169 million from the city to the zoo, which also receives $5 million a year from King County and got $7 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to offset COVID-19 losses. A boost in city payouts could be justifiable. But the contract also proposes to remove city authority over zoo animal policies — including which species the zoo brings in — and admission prices. Those terms are deal-breakers if the city cares about ethics and equity.

The council must insist on a deal that allows a debate about the appropriate place of zoos in a modern city to be publicly addressed. Locking Seattle into a long-term handover of oversight is no way to go about that necessary examination.

The last contract shows how much the zoo’s situation can change over a few years, and how the Society failed to keep in step with city sentiments. In 2001, Woodland Park Zoo was in its 80th year of proudly keeping elephants and hosted international festivities celebrating new calf Hansa, the first elephant born in Washington state. That year’s management contract included a city-financed $25 million parking garage on zoo grounds, City Council-approved as a four-story, 700-car project.

Today, the zoo is out of the elephant business, after years of righteous outcry over elephants’ suffering in confinement. Hansa died from illness at age 6 1/2 in Woodland Park’s custody. Her mother, Chai, died in Oklahoma in 2016, a few months after the Society bungled the transfer of its last two elephants. The promised parking garage went unbuilt after zoo neighbors objected. A council majority turned against it in 2007 and penned a letter about “reducing our reliance on automobiles.” Official rejection followed.

It’s time to reckon with unresolved concerns about zoos and the false environment in which their wild animals live. Seattle’s council should live up to its progressive ethos and enable that conversation, instead of approving a contract that would keep the zoo less beholden to the city through 2041 than it was in 2000.

Whether Seattle should have a zoo is a moral question to investigate. The answer should be a more careful one than simply outsourcing it to Woodland Park Zoological Society.