While Seattle agonizes over the fate of elephants Chai and Bamboo, there’s little controversy about captive elephants in their expected new home.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Mornings at the elephant barn begin with a bath.

When the weather is nice, as on this spring day, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s five elephants spend the night outdoors, pachyderm supervisor Nick Newby explained as he and his crew sluiced the animals with high-powered hoses.

“We clean off the dirt and mud from wallowing, check for injuries — anything that might have happened overnight.”

On cue from the keepers, the massive beasts laid on their sides or knelt and presented their heads for rinsing. They lifted tree-trunk-sized feet though the bars to be scrubbed and inspected for cracks or stones.

It’s a standard zoo routine — one that should be familiar to Woodland Park Zoo’s two female elephants when they arrive at their new home. The move could come any day unless animal-welfare groups pull off a surprise legal victory in their battle to have 36-year-old Chai and 48-year-old Bamboo sent to a sanctuary instead of a zoo.

The animals’ departure will mark the end of an emotional debate in Seattle about the toll captivity takes on the world’s largest land mammal. From the early 1980s, when zoo director David Hancocks resigned in disgust over the elephant exhibit, to Monday, when an 8-year-old girl pleaded with the City Council to stop the move, the delight of seeing elephants up close has long been tempered by distress for many Seattleites.

But in Oklahoma City, the relationship between citizens and their zoo is far less conflicted.

The turmoil in Seattle barely registered here, said City Councilman John Pettis Jr., whose ward encompasses the city’s “Adventure District,” with the zoo, a casino, a racetrack — and, nearby, the arena where the former Seattle SuperSonics play basketball. A few local pundits riffed on what else Oklahomans should steal from Seattle. But in a city famed for oil and cattle, there was no public hand-wringing over a couple more elephants.

An inside look at the Oklahoma City Zoo, where Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo elephants Chai and Bamboo will soon join five others in a 3.95-acre habitat. (Steve Ringman and Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

“We love our zoo, and anytime we have the opportunity to get more animals in, we are definitely grateful,” Pettis said.

Nick Newby, supervisor of the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant exhibit, brushes off Chandra’s foot pad, part of every morning’s routine with the five-member herd. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Nick Newby, supervisor of the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant exhibit, brushes off Chandra’s foot pad, part of every morning’s routine with the five-member herd. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The zoo is an economic driver for the city, and the decision several years ago to expand the elephant exhibit helped push attendance over the million-visitor mark last year, he said.

That decision came as zoos were facing an infant mortality rate of 40 percent, and two deaths for every birth among captive elephants. Since the early 1990s, more than 20 North American zoos, including Seattle, opted to close their exhibits. Oklahoma City joined a handful of zoos with aggressive breeding programs designed to fend off a population crash.

The zoo spent $13 million — equivalent to its annual budget — on a new elephant habitat that opened in 2011. It’s one of the largest in the country, with a barn almost three times the size of Seattle’s and room for up to a dozen animals. Still, a federal judge said last week that the zoo would not offer Chai and Bamboo the climate or space necessary for their well-being.

Elephant exhibits are a favorite of zoo visitors. Here, Nick Newby leads a demonstration with Rex at a crowded pavilion at the Oklahoma City Zoo.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Elephant exhibits are a favorite of zoo visitors. Here, Nick Newby leads a demonstration with Rex at a crowded pavilion at the Oklahoma City Zoo. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Larger compound

The hydraulic hum of gates signaled the end of the morning ablutions. The four female elephants ambled out of the barn and into the half-acre enclosure where they would spend the day.

Glamour Beasts: The dark side of elephant captivity

Click here or on the photo above to see The Seattle Times’ 2012 investigation into elephant deaths in U.S. zoos.  

Seattle’s elephants

Elephants from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo were moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015 after a bruising political and court fight. Activists had wanted the elephants transferred to a sanctuary in California.  

Rex, the zoo’s only male, is kept separate except for breeding. On this day, he was in the half-acre yard where Chai and Bamboo will spend a month of semi-quarantine, eyeing and sniffing their new companions from a distance.

Newby and his crew fanned out across the largest of the zoo’s three yards. It’s got a waterfall, a running stream, a 12-foot-deep pool and 2.6 acres — more than twice the space at Woodland Park. The keepers carried hay, grapes, frozen cylinders of fruit and tree branches that they scattered around for the elephants to find.

“Our goal is to give them so many things to do throughout the day that they’re constantly moving, constantly doing something, which encourages natural behavior,” Newby said, stuffing hay into a barrel suspended at trunk height.

The animals can also feed on grass that grows knee-high during summer. But trees and shrubs outside the steel perimeter fence are off-limits, protected by electrified wires to keep the elephants from nibbling.

Log canopies provide shade. When it’s cold, the elephants can shelter in a kind of foyer, with a floor of packed sand to protect their feet from damage caused by hard surfaces. When the forecast calls for lightning, hail, bitter cold — or tornadoes — the animals are kept in the barn, which is a designated storm shelter. But Newby estimates they’re outdoors 80 percent of the time.

When all the treats were hidden, the keepers let Rex into the yard. The 47-year-old clearly knew the drill.

He trotted to a tangle of logs, extracted a “Popsicle” with his trunk, crushed it under foot and picked out the tastiest bits. He made equally quick work of the hanging hay barrel, shaking it with his trunk until the contents spilled out.

Seattle’s elephant keepers provide similar training and enrichment activities. While Chai and Bamboo may enjoy more space and amenities in Oklahoma, the main benefits will be social, said Woodland Park Zoo’s chief operating officer Bruce Bohmke.

“The best thing is to have them join a herd that has babies and adults,” he said. “That’s exactly what elephants have in the wild, and that’s what we’ve always been striving for.”

A history of hard lessons

Like many American communities, Oklahoma City has dark chapters in its zoo history. The most bizarre is the tale of the elephant and the acid trip.

In 1962, the zoo welcomed a bull named Tusko as a mate for its female and as a research subject for psychiatrist Louis “Jolly” West, who later studied mind control and brainwashing. Intrigued by the drug LSD, West decided to observe its effects on Tusko.

He administered a massive dose via dart rifle. Five minutes later, the elephant trumpeted and collapsed, his tongue turning blue. After nearly two hours of thrashing, he died.

Zoos across the country have come a long way since then. In 1990, with voter approval of a one-eighth-cent-per-dollar sales tax, Oklahoma City’s began revamping outdated exhibits and embraced a mission of education and conservation.

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Animal-welfare activists targeted the facility in the early 2000s, after the deaths of several dolphins in a Sea World-type show. Nora Sinkankas, who led the campaign, was shunned by friends and neighbors in a community that rarely challenges the zoo.

“There was a great backlash for me for taking this on,” she said.

The zoo ended the dolphin show, but denied that the protests played any role.

Chandra, an 18-year-old Asian elephant, lives with her half-sister, Asha, 20, as part of the herd at the Oklahoma City Zoo.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Chandra, an 18-year-old Asian elephant, lives with her half-sister, Asha, 20, as part of the herd at the Oklahoma City Zoo. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

The new elephant compound is the zoo’s most ambitious project, and plans are in the works to expand it. The heart of the herd is a pair of half-sisters, 18-year-old Chandra and 20-year-old Asha. The sisters were separated from their mothers at an early age, then shipped to the Tulsa zoo for breeding, which landed Oklahoma City on a “10 worst” list of zoos for elephants in 2008.

But today there’s an obvious family bond between both adult females and Asha’s two calves, 3-year-old Malee and 3-month-old Achara. During morning bath time, Malee entwined trunks with her aunt while her little sister frisked in the water in the adjacent stall. Outside in the yard, mother, aunt and sister quickly formed a protective barrier around the baby when, startled, she trumpeted in alarm.

Like all zoos, Oklahoma City markets the young animals with name-the-baby contests, elephant cams and merchandise. Achara’s debut brought near-record attendance, even in midwinter.

But marketing never drives breeding decisions, said curator of mammals Laura Bottaro. The zoo wants more calves, and may attempt to breed Chai with Rex. But they won’t force the issue, Bottaro said.

“We are committed to responsible breeding.”

The hope is that Seattle’s elephants will become part of the Oklahoma herd, acting as “aunties” to the youngsters. In Seattle, though, the prickly Bamboo had to be separated from Chai’s calf.

“We anticipate Chai is going to be a little easier to integrate,” Bottaro said. “But Bamboo might surprise us all.”

If not, Bottaro pointed out that the compound is large enough to give Bamboo her own space.

The elephant habitat at the Oklahoma City Zoo has three separate yards. Amenities include a waterfall, a running stream, a 12-foot-deep pool and more space than Woodland Park Zoo. (Courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo)
The elephant habitat at the Oklahoma City Zoo has three separate yards. Amenities include a waterfall, a running stream, a 12-foot-deep pool and more space than Woodland Park Zoo. (Courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo)

Elephant showtime

After Rex scoured the yard for treats, it was showtime for the 8,000-pound bull.

The zoo offers daily elephant demonstrations in a 400-seat pavilion, and it was Rex’s turn. Sometimes the animals are led through behaviors that allow keepers to work with them, like flaring out an ear for a blood draw or presenting feet for inspection. Today, the focus was conservation.

As Rex urinated loudly, to the delight of children in the audience, Newby talked about elephant biology and threats facing wild elephants. He mentioned conservation efforts the zoo supports, which include $20,000 a year for anti-poaching patrols in a Kenyan conservancy and $20,000 for habitat protection in Sumatra.

For the grand finale, a keeper rolled Rex a watermelon, which he stomped and ate.

Sitting in the pavilion after the show, Bottaro defended the demonstrations as a way to get visitors close to elephants and engage them in efforts to preserve the species in the wild — the main argument zoos make for keeping elephants in captivity.

“When you have this magnificent animal close to you … I think it’s a different feeling than if you see elephants in a video or a book,” she said. “You can smell them. You can look in their eyes.”

Spurred partly by critics, zoos have greatly improved conditions for captive elephants in recent decades, said Oklahoma City Zoo Director Dwight Lawson. He’s optimistic zoo populations will rebound and thrive as a result.

“I’m confident the team here will provide a great environment and great level of care for Chai and Bamboo,” he said.

After the show, Rex returned to his yard where he scratched against a pole, then leaned his bulk into a tree snag chained to the ground. In the adjacent enclosure, 3-year-old Malee stripped bark from branches, while Achara nudged her mother to nurse. Chandra stationed herself near an automatic feeder.

“Are they happy?” Bottaro had mused earlier. “I can’t get inside their heads. … But I can look at their behavior, and their behavior tells me they are content.”

The herd, minus male Rex, gathers around a water hole at the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant exhibit. From left is Asha, 20, with her offspring Achara, 3 months old, and Malee, 3. Chandra, 18, at right, is Asha’s half-sister. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The herd, minus male Rex, gathers around a water hole at the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant exhibit. From left is Asha, 20, with her offspring Achara, 3 months old, and Malee, 3. Chandra, 18, at right, is Asha’s half-sister. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)