The Seattle Times confronted a significant hurdle in examining elephant deaths in U.S. zoos: The industry doesn't comprehensively track...

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The Seattle Times confronted a significant hurdle in examining elephant deaths in U.S. zoos: The industry doesn’t comprehensively track elephant births and deaths.

To do that ourselves, we turned first to two zoo-industry books, the 2010 Asian Elephant Studbook and the 2011 African Elephant Studbook, which list zoo and circus elephants dating back to the late 1800s. The problem is that these studbooks, which track breeding, contain no information about cause of death.

So we turned to elephant consultant Dan Koehl, a Swedish zookeeper, who has created a comprehensive database of elephant ownership worldwide (, including footnoted accounts of deaths and births.

We combined the zoo industry’s studbooks and Koehl’s data to make a custom database. Over several months, we independently verified the history of each elephant. With the assistance of two staff researchers, we also filled in missing information for more than a hundred elephants by combing through thousands of pages of public records obtained from zoos and by scouring databases of old newspaper articles.

Although we obtained vital records of zoo elephants for more than a century, we focused our analysis on the past 50 years, beginning in 1962 with the birth of Packy at a Portland zoo — the first elephant to be born in a zoo in North America.

To track the history of Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program, we relied on four key record types: daily zookeeper logs and reports, medical-history charts, clinical-pathology records and diagnostic-laboratory results. Additionally, we obtained zoo memorandums and emails, and interviewed top officials connected to the elephant program.

On a national level, a variety of on-the-record sources, most connected to animal-welfare groups, provided hundreds of pages of internal communications and emails from the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums; we verified those records when cited in the series.

In addition, we reviewed thousands of pages of court records, zoo-industry research reports, legislative hearings and zoo financial records.

— Michael J. Berens