Local animal advocacy group urges feds to investigate elephant's death at Woodland Park Zoo

SEATTLE -- A Seattle-based animal advocacy group is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate the recent death of an elephant named Watoto at the Woodland Park Zoo, citing possible deficiencies in zoo staffing and elephant monitoring.

The Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants (FOWPZE) wants the USDA to investigate Watoto's Aug. 22 death. According to the group, Watoto was found lying down in her cell and was later euthanized, and no reason for her debilitation has yet been announced.

"It is evident that zoo staff did not monitor Watoto overnight and it is unknown whether her death was protracted," the group said in a Wednesday release. "Or whether prompt staff intervention could have prevented Watoto's death or remediated any suffering."

Zoo keepers said Watoto -- a 45-year-old African elephant who was considered the matriarch of the zoo's elephants -- was humanely euthanized when they could not bring the elephant to her feet.

"With compassion and sadness, Woodland Park Zoo's keepers and animal health staff made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her," the zoo said on Aug. 22.  According to the zoo, Watoto was born in Kenya between 1969 and 1970 and came to Woodland Park in 1971 as an orphan.  Zoo keepers considered her the ‘matriarch’ of the zoo’s herd and she was the only African elephant at the zoo.

Critics such as FOWPZE have long argued the animals do not belong in zoos and that their physical and mental health is greatly impacted by confinement. FOWPZE contends that the zoo’s failure to provide vigilant nighttime monitoring to an elephant allegedly known to have chronic health issues violates provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, which requires adequate veterinary care, proper handling, and adequate staffing.

FOWPZE contends the zoo does not have an adequate plan in place to deal with emergency, and a lack of 24/7 monitoring, meaning some elephants can go unattended for up to 16 hours at a time.

The zoo was the center of national media attention when a 6-year-old elephant, Hansa, was found dead in 2007,