The Oklahoma City Zoo said there were no red flags before an elephant from Seattle was found dead. But records show Chai suffered injuries, weight loss, skin lesions, chewing problems and other incidents in the months before her death. | TIMES WATCHDOG

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When the elephant Chai was found dead on a cold January morning, the Oklahoma City Zoo spokeswoman said there had been no red flags about the health of the 37-year-old female, who arrived from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo less than eight months earlier.

But a review of medical documents and keeper notes obtained under Oklahoma’s open-records law reveal that Chai suffered multiple injuries, weight loss, skin lesions, chewing problems and other incidents in the months before her death — including two times when she was unable to get up on her own.

Advocates who wanted Seattle’s elephants retired to a sanctuary contend the zoo was negligent and missed warning signals.

“Our experts are raising great concern over the level of medical care Chai received at the Oklahoma City Zoo,” said Alyne Fortgang, of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.

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The Seattle zoo closed its elephant exhibit in 2015 after years of controversy and protest, and transferred Chai and her herd-mate, Bamboo.

Oklahoma City Zoo officials defend their care of Chai, and say nothing indicated she was in critical condition before keepers discovered her body in the elephant yard on Jan. 30.

According to the necropsy, the elephant died from a combination of severe fat loss and a systemic blood infection. Zoo officials suspect it was during the two incidents when she struggled to rise that Chai scraped the skin on the right side of her body, leading to pus-filled lesions cited as the likely source of the fatal blood infection.

Based on later examination of Chai’s skull, zoo officials now blame the emaciation on deformed teeth. They also say the blood infection might have originated in Chai’s teeth, rather than the skin lesions.

“Probably her tooth was chronically infected, but I can’t prove that definitively,” said Oklahoma City Zoo veterinarian Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino.

From left, Chai, Chandra, Bamboo and Achara at the Oklahoma City Zoo.   Chai  was transferred to Oklahoma in 2015 and died earlier this year. (Gillian Lang/Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden)
From left, Chai, Chandra, Bamboo and Achara at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Chai was transferred to Oklahoma in 2015 and died earlier this year. (Gillian Lang/Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden)

D’Agostino said she and her staff were concerned when Chai couldn’t get up after a routine bath Dec. 14, then was again unable to stand when keepers arrived on the morning of Dec. 18.

On both occasions, keepers used a strap and overhead crane to hoist the elephant to her feet. Over the following days, they noted that Chai’s hips and legs were swollen.

D’Agostino X-rayed the elephant’s legs, ordered extra blood tests and prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs.

But nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

“Unfortunately, they can’t tell us if they don’t feel well,” D’Agostino said. “We have to go on what we can detect.”

The zoo discontinued the additional blood testing at the end of December. Chai’s final blood analysis was Dec. 29.

With no additional blood tests, it’s hard to know when or how the deadly infection started, said Dr. Heather Rally, a veterinarian for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

“Elephants don’t just develop a systemic bacterial infection and die overnight,” Rally said.

D’Agostino said she isn’t sure additional tests would have raised an alarm, since Chai’s earlier results showed no marked immune response to what might have been a chronic infection.

“I don’t think her immune system was responding properly,” D’Agostino said.

Zoo records show keepers first noticed skin abscesses Jan. 3.

In an interview, D’Agostino dismissed the lesions as the equivalent of pimples, and said she is skeptical they were the actual source of Chai’s blood infection.

The necropsy describes about 25 scabbed pustules — some up to 2 inches across — along the right side of Chai’s body, with ulceration and necrosis (death or decay) extending into underlying tissues.

The report says keepers were flushing the sores with water every day.

But according to the vet records, no antibiotic or antiseptic was applied, said Seattle veterinarian Dr. Julia Allen, who has worked with livestock, domestic pets and a wide variety of wildlife.

“Chai spent a month going downhill to the point of dying of emaciation and sepsis,” said Allen, who joined in protests of the Seattle elephants’ transfer to Oklahoma and reviewed Chai’s records on behalf of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. “Why didn’t they treat the abscesses? Why didn’t they monitor her weight?”

Loss of weight

Zoo staff did notice that Chai was dropping pounds. On Dec. 15, vet records describe her as “slightly thin” and said her food would be increased. But according to the reports, Chai was weighed only twice during her time in Oklahoma and the full extent of her weight loss was never documented.

When Chai left Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo on April 15, she weighed 8,150 pounds. After bad weather diverted the caravan transporting Chai and Bamboo, the animals spent almost a month at the San Diego Zoo before arriving in Oklahoma City on May 13.

A month later, Chai’s weight was recorded as 7,600 pounds. When she died, she weighed 7,100 pounds — a total loss of 1,050 pounds, or nearly 13 percent of her original body weight.

D’Agostino said staff relied on a standard, visual scoring system to evaluate Chai’s body condition. By that yardstick, she didn’t appear to be dangerously underweight.

“You couldn’t see her ribs, nothing that would indicate the degree of fat loss that was going on,” D’Agostino said, noting that 400 to 500 pounds doesn’t represent a significant loss for an animal the size of an elephant.

“It wasn’t a huge red flag for us,” she said. “Certainly after the necropsy it was absolutely more of a red flag.”

But the records do show that zoo staff had discussed Chai’s teeth and her ability to chew and digest food.

On Dec. 3, keepers and vet staff noted that one of Chai’s upper molars was curved and didn’t provide a good chewing surface — which they said could explain the elephant’s unusual, fibrous stools.

“This tooth abnormality was known by the former keeper staff at this animal’s previous institution and they said it had been that way for 20 years,” the entry says.

During her more than three decades in Seattle, Chai never had problems chewing or maintaining her body weight, said Woodland Park Zoo spokeswoman Gigi Allianic.

“Chai had oddly shaped teeth but she didn’t have any abnormalities that rose to the level of a medical concern that required veterinary intervention or discussion,” Allianic wrote in an email.

D’Agostino said the severity of Chai’s tooth deformities wasn’t evident until after her death, when her skeleton was prepared for exhibit in a museum.

Both of Chai’s upper molars were rounded, instead of flat, and one of her lower molars was twisted. Elephants are born with multiple sets of teeth, which are replaced throughout their lifetimes. Apparently, Chai’s became more abnormal with each successive cycle, D’Agostino said.

“I think her teeth were really bad for a period of time and that she wasn’t able to chew her food very well, so she wasn’t extracting much caloric content from the food.”

Because it’s so hard to see inside elephants’ mouths, and impossible to X-ray their dense skulls, the Oklahoma zoo uses a plumber’s camera to check their herd’s teeth annually. But Chai and Bamboo hadn’t yet been examined.

If they had realized how bad Chai’s problems were, the zoo could have ground up her hay and taken other steps to ensure proper nutrition, D’Agostino said

Aggressive encounters

The records also reveal that Chai’s new life in Oklahoma City was marked by occasional aggressive encounters with other elephants.

During one of the zoo’s daily performances, in which elephants are put through their behavioral paces for an audience, Bamboo slammed into Chai, knocking the smaller elephant off her feet and into an electric wire fence. Records say the wire was not “hot” at the time.

A couple of weeks later, keepers noticed a bruise on Chai’s shoulder but didn’t know what caused it. Then, a tussle in a stall with another of the zoo’s resident females left Chai with abrasions on her face and body.

It was a few days later when Chai was first unable to get up.

Some critics have also raised questions about the temperature on the night she died.

Video from surveillance cameras show that none of the elephants was in the barn that night, though temperatures ranged from about 45 to near freezing.

Elephants can generally tolerate temperatures in the 40s fairly well, Rally, the veterinarian with PETA, said. Zoo industry standards require hourly monitoring when temperatures fall below 40, but Chai’s body was not discovered until staff arrived at about 7:30 a.m.

Cold temperatures and stress — as from a recent move — can impair animals’ immune systems, Rally pointed out.

Chai died three months after Oklahoma’s 4-year-old female elephant, Malee, succumbed to a herpes infection. But there was no evidence herpes played a role in Chai’s death.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that as a matter of routine, the agency is reviewing Chai’s death to see whether there were any violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Meanwhile, medical records show that Oklahoma City is continuing its efforts to breed elephants. In November, staff used sperm from one of the zoo’s bulls to inseminate the 19-year-old female called Chandra.