Her life story was the story of most U.S. zoo elephants
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.
That question was on the morning of November 15, 2022 answered with utmost finality.
Picked locks, peeled oranges
Bamboo, the last survivor, hairier than most elephants, known for picking locks, opening gates, and carefully peeling her oranges before eating them, was euthanized at the Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Bamboo died surrounded by the seven Asian elephants remaining at the zoo: Rex, 55; Asha, 26; Chandra, 25; Kandula, 20, who spent the most time with Bamboo; Achara, seven; and Rama, ten months.
Chai, 37, was on January 30, 2016 found dead in the Oklahoma City Zoo & Aquarium elephant yard at about 7:30 a.m., apparently when staff arrived in the morning.
Chai and Bamboo at that point had been there only six and a half months.
“Behavior changes & slower mobility”
“At approximately 56,” reported K. Querry-Thompson for KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City, “Bamboo was the zoo’s oldest Asian elephant and considered geriatric. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the median life expectancy of a female Asian elephant is 47.”
The Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Garden told media that Bamboo, called “Boo” for short, had “exhibited behavior changes and slower mobility since 2019,” Querry-Thompson summarized.
“Caretakers developed a daily geriatric care program that included advanced treatment for arthritis with medication and physical therapy,” Querry-Thompson said.
“Bamboo’s mobility was impacted,” Querry-Thompson continued, by “suspected damage to a ligament in her right knee. Zoo officials say she occasionally experienced temporary loss of strength in her rear right leg, which caused it to ‘buckle’ or ‘give out.’
“These incidents were increasing in recent weeks. Due to her instability, Bamboo was no longer able to take part in physical therapy.”
Born in Thailand in November 1966, Bamboo was captured from the wild as a calf. She arrived at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington on June 1, 1967, barely six months old.
Initially kept at the Children’s Zoo in the Family Farm section of the Woodland Park Zoo, Bamboo was later relocated to the zoo’s original elephant house, dating to 1921.
David Hancocks, the longtime zoo reform advocate who directed the Woodland Park Zoo from 1971 to 1984, resigned in frustration after two failed attempts to pass bond issues to fund a new elephant house.
A new Woodland Park Zoo elephant house and exercise area were finally opened in 1989.
Hancocks reportedly recalled then that Bamboo during his tenure had been playful, trustworthy, and cooperative enough to be walked throughout the entire zoo.
Later, Hancocks alleged, harsh discipline and overnight chaining turned Bamboo into a dangerous and “difficult” elephant who on August 25, 2005 was relocated to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, known for housing “problem” elephants in what were then among the first “protected contact” elephant quarters at U.S. zoos.
“Protected contact,” which minimizes physical interaction between elephants and keepers, is now the preferred method of housing at zoos worldwide, and at both the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary in San Andreas, California, and The Elephant Sanctuary at Hohenwald, Tennessee.
Woodland Park rejected move to sanctuary
Bamboo remained at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium for less than a year, returning to the Woodland Park Zoo on June 11, 2006.
The Woodland Park Zoo elephant habitat built in 1989 came under immediate criticism for allegedly being little better than the facility it replaced. The zoo in March 2014 announced plans to spend $3 million on improvements, but changed direction in November 2014, declaring instead that Chai and Bamboo, the last elephants at the zoo, would be relocated.
Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, begun as a project of the Northwest Animal Rights Network, had campaigned for years to have the Woodland Park Zoo elephant exhibit closed and the elephants Chai, Bamboo, and Watoto, an African elephant who died in August 2014, sent to either the Performing Animal Welfare Society or The Elephant Sanctuary.
Kept in captive breeding plan
However, 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.
But neither Chai nor Bamboo were good prospects for captive breeding, Bamboo because of her age.
Chai, captured as a year-old infant in Thailand in 1970, had already experienced 112 unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination, according to records disclosed in 2012 by Seattle Times staff reporter Michael J. Berens.
“She gave birth in November 2000,” Berens recalled, “ after she was bred at the Dickerson Park Zoo in Missouri. But the calf, Hansa, died at age 6 from an infectious herpes virus. Zoo officials remain uncertain how the deadly disease was transmitted.”
Snow & high mountains delayed relocation
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.
Chai and Bamboo reached their last home and resting place on May 15, 2015.