Chai’s move to Oklahoma City came after a bruising political and court fight. Activists had wanted the elephants transferred to a sanctuary in California.

Share story

When the zookeeping staff arrived at 7:30 Saturday morning to check on the elephants, they saw Chai on the ground, on her side.

“She looked peaceful, as if she just laid down and passed away,” said Tara Henson, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden.

And so the sad saga of Chai, the 37-year-old elephant transferred from the Woodland Park Zoo to her new home last May, came to the end some had feared.

According to the Oklahoma zoo, the median life expectancy for a female Asian elephant like Chai is 47.

Animal-rights activists in Seattle reacted emotionally as they learned the news, and as Oklahoma City awaited the results of a necropsy.

“I’m ashamed to be human sometimes,” posted a woman on the Facebook page for Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, a group that tried to keep Chai and Seattle’s other Asian elephant, Bamboo, from going to Oklahoma City.

Said Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of the group, “These elephants are dying so young because they suffer and die prematurely in zoo confinements.”

She estimated she had visited Chai more than 100 times over the last dozen years when the elephant was in Seattle.

“Seeing her was devastating. She had severe stereotypical behavior, bobbing her head up and down, swaying back and forth on her front legs,” said Fortgang. “They don’t do this in the wild. It’s a way of coping with trauma and stress and severe boredom.”

The group posted a 4-minute-long video consisting of Chai exhibiting such behavior.

At the Woodland Park Zoo, spokesman David Schaefer had no comment Saturday about the statements from activists.

“Everybody feels terrible about it at the zoo,” he said, “particularly the keepers who spent a lot of time with her.”

Woodland Park opted to close its elephant exhibit after the death in 2014 of a third elephant, 45-year-old Watoto, who collapsed in the yard and was euthanized.

Zoo officials picked Oklahoma City because it was among a handful of zoos with active breeding programs for elephants. Chai and Bamboo were joining a herd that included a bull, two adult females and two youngsters.

The move to Oklahoma City came after a bruising political and court fight. Activists had wanted the elephants transferred to a sanctuary in California.

In April, before the elephants were moved, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour denied the activists’ request, but expressed concerns about conditions in Oklahoma City.

Life of Chai

Chai Photos of elephant Chai's life in captivity

“The court is deeply troubled that the OKC Zoo will not be able to offer Chai and Bamboo the climate nor nearly the amount of space that independent experts have said is necessary for their well-being,” Coughenour wrote in his decision.

But because the Woodland Park Zoo isn’t any better, he decided, and because neither of the country’s two elephant sanctuaries could immediately accept the animals, Chai and Bamboo ended up Okies.

Providing more detail about Chai’s last hours, Henson said unless there is a special reason, the animals are not checked at night by the keepers.

“There hadn’t been anything that raised a red flag. She had been in good health,” Henson said about Chai. She said there had been no disturbance on the ground that might have given concern.

As for dying 10 years before the median life expectancy for a female Asian elephant, Henson said, “Just like with humans,” some elephants die earlier and some live longer.

On Saturday, veterinary staff at the zoo began the necropsy — an animal autopsy — on the 7,300-pound elephant. Results are expected early next week, said Henson.

The Woodland Park Zoo disputed the charges made by activists about how elephants fared in Seattle, and has published a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal.

For example, in replying to the charge that the elephants were exhibiting repetitive mannerisms, the zoo said independent veterinary experts had concluded Chai and Bamboo didn’t “exhibit signs of distress, frustration, or pathology.”

Elephant captivity has been controversial for decades. A 2012 Seattle Times investigation found that for every elephant born in a zoo, an average of two elephants die.

Zookeepers had tried to artificially inseminate Chai at least 112 times. She had given birth to one daughter, Hansa, who died in 2007 at age 6½ of a herpes virus.

The investigation also found that infant mortality among zoo elephants is 40 percent, nearly three times the rate in wild-elephant populations.

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.  

In October, a 4-year-old elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo died of a herpes virus. Most elephants are believed to carry multiple strains of herpes viruses.

On Saturday, in front of the Woodland Park Zoo main entrance, Angela Rae was among seven women who, on the spur-of-the-moment, felt they had to show their feelings about Chai.

Said Rae, “Our worst fear has come true. It’s such a shock.”

Cars slowed down at the sight of the women holding up signs such as, “How many elephants have to die” and “RIP Chai.”

The emotions concerning Chai’s death spread to the Oklahoma zoo’s Facebook page.

A woman posted, “You and Woodland Park Zoo have Chai’s blood on your hands. Elephants do not belong in zoos, it’s time to wake up people!!”

Among the many replies to that posting was this man, “My guess is you’ve never been to the OKC Zoo. I HAVE! They have an excellent elephant facility & care deeply about these animals. There’s no “blood” on anybody’s hands. Ridiculous! Would you rather it be in the wild where some jerk will try to make it a trophy or kill it for the tusks? You anti zoo people don’t think of these things!”

It wasn’t just the activists who were feeling the sadness of Chai’s death.

The keepers at both zoos deal with the animals on a daily basis.

“Sometimes people forget we have close to 2,000 species here,” said Tara Henson. “We’re like a small town.”

Elephants are known for their bonding.

On Saturday, said Henson, 48-year-old Bamboo was searching for her friend.

“She was walking around, looking around the yards, standing by the door where she knew she had last been,” said Henson.

But Chai wasn’t there.