Seattle advocate says elephant died after ‘a horrible, traumatic life at the hands of Woodland Park Zoo’

Feb 1, 2016, 5:49 PM | Updated: Feb 2, 2016, 6:28 am
Chai at the Oklahoma City Zoo. (Photo by Gillian Lang)...
Chai at the Oklahoma City Zoo. (Photo by Gillian Lang)
(Photo by Gillian Lang)

Last May, after much controversy, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo sent it’s two remaining elephants, Bamboo and Chai, to the Oklahoma City Zoo. On Saturday, 37-year-old Chai was found dead.

“There were no obvious signs of distress,” Oklahoma City Zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson announced. “She had been acting normally, she had been fine that evening before, enjoying time with her herd mates. So there was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong. Clearly we’re shocked. We’re really very sad and still trying to come to terms that this has actually happened.”

Alyne Fortgang is the co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, an advocacy group who has fought long and hard to send Seattle’s elephants to a sanctuary, not a zoo. She hopes that Chai has found peace and freedom after so many years in captivity.

“She absolutely did not die of old age, she was only 37 years old,” Fortgang says. “In the wild, female elephants are still bearing calves at that age. It wasn’t old age. I think it was a combination of all the stress perpetrated upon her her entire life. She’s just had a horrible, horrible traumatic life at the hands of Woodland Park Zoo.”

Fortgang tells Chai’s life story:

“She was born in Bangkok and she was shipped to Seattle as a gift by Thai Airlines. When she was in her 20’s she was sent to Dickerson Park Zoo to be bred with a bull. There she was beaten up to two hours and Dickerson Park Zoo was fined by the USDA for that beating. Then she comes back to Seattle and they continue artificially inseminating her up to 112 times, maybe more. That is a highly invasive procedure. It’s just unconscionable what Woodland Park Zoo has done to this animal. More recently, she lost her baby, Hansa, at 6 years old. She suffered that loss. In most recent history she was shipped off to Oklahoma City Zoo [and on the trip there] these poor elephants stood in windowless, metal crates for over 50 hours. It’s just painful what Woodland Park Zoo has done.”

Henson argues that accredited zoos protect animals that would be poached in the wild. Both PETA and Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants would like to see elephants moved from zoos to sanctuaries, where they could have room to roam. I asked Henson if the zoo would consider sending their remaining elephants to a sanctuary.

“No. We won’t consider it,” Henson says. “Frankly, we are experts in what we do and we are experts in the care and well being of elephants. While the word sanctuary has kind of a romantic sense about it, it isn’t necessarily the best place. We manage our animals, we have breeding programs, we have great healthcare. It’s not necessarily about having enough space to roam. There’s a lot more science to it.”

But Fortgang thinks Chai’s life could have been saved if she was at a sanctuary.

“The one thing that zoos do not do is monitor their elephants overnight,” Fortgang says. “Both accredited sanctuaries in the United States monitor the elephants 24/7. In fact, just recently when one of the elephants from Toronto went down at two o’clock in the morning, a crane was called in and she was lifted. As far as Chai is concerned, she went down sometime in the night, they found her at 7:30 in the morning. The other thing that is a concern is it was very cold the night she died. Why was she outside? Overnight it was under 40 degrees. The Animal Welfare Act says if it’s under 40 degrees, the elephants must be checked every hour for hypothermia and that was not done.”

Fortgang says elephants aren’t the only animals that deserve freedom, she’d like to see primates released from zoos as well. She says people need to stop visiting their local zoos, and giving them money.

“Suffering is not entertainment,” Fortgang says. “Why do we have the right to make another species suffer and die young, just so we can look at them for a couple of minutes? Then we go home and have dinner and watch TV and they are stuck in there for life? People need to stop going to the zoo and causing this misery.”

Henson says they haven’t had any protests at the Oklahoma City Zoo, like we’ve seen here in Seattle. She feels proud of the environment the elephants live in and the daily care they are given.

Ron and Don

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Seattle advocate says elephant died after ‘a horrible, traumatic life at the hands of Woodland Park Zoo’