Chai, 47, found deceased at the Oklahoma City Zoo
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma––“Where will Woodland Park Zoo elephants be sent to die?”, ANIMALS 24-7 asked on December 7, 2014, as the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle finalized plans to transfer Chai and Bamboo, the last two elephants to reside there, to the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Chai, 37, was on January 30, 2016 found dead in the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant yard at about 7:30 a.m., apparently when staff arrived in the morning.
Captured from wild
A female Asian elephant, Chai was captured as a year-old infant in Thailand in 1970. She died about ten years short of the 47-year life expectancy for female Asian elephants in U.S. zoos.
“A necropsy turned up no definitive cause of death or obvious signs of infectious disease, but the zoo said final lab results aren’t expected for a month or more,” Associated Press reported.
Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo asks for USDA probe
“It is evident that staff did not monitor Chai overnight and it is unknown whether her death was protracted or immediate, or whether prompt intervention could have prevented Chai’s death or remediated her suffering,” charged Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo elephants, asking the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to investigate whether any violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act might have been involved.
“Among the Seattle organization’s concerns,” summarized Associated Press, “are whether the Oklahoma zoo adequately monitored the elephants, provided them adequate protection as overnight temperatures fell into the low 30s, and that the zoo had no apparent way to raise an elephant that has gone down on its side––which can kill them as the weight of their bodies crush their organs. Chai had previously suffered from chronic foot disease, which is a leading cause of death of elephants in captivity.”
Failed breeding attempts
Chai and Bamboo, also a female Asian elephant, were sent to the Oklahoma City Zoo to become part of the zoo’s captive breeding program, Woodland Park Zoo director Deborah Jensen told media when they were moved. But Chai, the younger of the two former Woodland Park Zoo elephants, was a poor prospect for captive breeding, having already experienced 112 unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination, according to records disclosed in 2012 by Seattle Times staff reporter Michael J. Berens.
“Chai gave birth in November 2000,” Berens recalled, “after she was bred at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri. But the calf, Hansa, died at age 6 from an infectious herpes virus. Zoo officials remain uncertain how the deadly disease was transmitted.”
Chai’s death left the Oklahoma City Zoo with five elephants: three females, a 48-year-old Asian elephant bull named Rex, and Kandula, a 13-year-old male obtained in October 2015 on breeding loan from the Smithsonian National Zoo, in Washington D.C.
Kandula arrived three weeks after the death of Malee, 4, the first elephant born at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Malee succumbed to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, a disease endemic among the U.S. captive elephant population. Malee died within just 18 hours of first displaying visible symptoms.
The National Zoo, home of the National Elephant Herpesvirus Lab, said Kandula had already been exposed to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus––apparently the same disease that killed Chai’s baby Hansa.
Woodland Park Zoo denied risk
“Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s associate director for animal care sciences, said Kandula and others in the zoo’s herd already carry the virus, and most elephants sickened by it are between the ages of 4 and 8,” reported Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post.
Some critics of the transfer of Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo contended––though both appeared to have already been exposed to elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus––that they might be be at renewed risk from it.
Responded the Woodland Park Zoo via a web page, “Claims that certain zoos are contaminated once an animal becomes ill from EEHV are unfounded and based on a lack of understanding of how the viruses co-exist with their hosts. Like all herpesviruses, EEHV cannot survive outside the body, so a herpes outbreak does not ‘contaminate’ a facility. Every elephant potentially carries one or more herpesvirus, regardless of whether that elephant lives in a wild population, a zoo or a sanctuary. This is very similar to the various herpesviruses in humans such as cold sores, chicken pox or shingles.”
Zoo refused to send elephants to a sanctuary
Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, begun as a project of the Northwest Animal Rights Network, campaigned for years to have the Woodland Park Zoo elephant exhibit closed and the elephants Chai, Bamboo, and Watoto sent to either the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas, California, or The Elephant Sanctuary at Hohenwald, Tennessee.
After Watoto, 45, was euthanized on August 22, 2014 due to immobilizing arthritis, the Woodland Park Zoo agreed to relocate Chai and Bamboo, now 50, leaving the zoo without elephants for the first time since 1921––the 25th zoo in recent years to permanently close an elephant exhibit.
But instead of retiring Chai and Bamboo to a sanctuary, the Woodland Park Zoo elected to keep them within the American Zoo Association’s Species Survival Program, which focuses on maintaining zoo populations of endangered animals through captive breeding.
Leaving the Woodland Park Zoo by truck in mid-April 2015, Bamboo and Chai were diverted to temporary care at a San Diego Zoo quarantine facility after heavy snow in the Rocky Mountains disrupted their journey. The route to San Diego took them close to the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary, but Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo elephants was unsuccessful in seeking a restraining order which would have compelled the elephants’ retirement, instead of resumption of their transfer to Oklahoma City when weather permitted.