Hansa, the 6 year-old elephant at Woodland Park Zoo, was found dead this morning inside the zoo's elephant barn.

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Hansa, the 6 ½-year-old elephant at Woodland Park Zoo, was found dead this morning inside the zoo’s elephant barn.

Zoo officials believe the female Asian elephant died quietly in her sleep. Hansa had been lethargic and had a decreased appetite over the past week, according to the zoo.

The zoo’s health staff had been monitoring Hansa and providing fluids and antibiotics, but all tests proved inconclusive.

Zoo officials believed that Hansa had improved slightly earlier this week.

Hansa, born Nov. 3, 2000, was the first elephant born in the state of Washington, zoo officials said. Her mother is 28-year-old Chai.

Because of her death, the zoo’s Elephant Forest, which features 40-year-old Bamboo, a female Asian elephant, and 38-year-old Watoto, a female African elephant, will be closed all day.

Zoo officials said during a news conference this afternoon that they would be conducting a necropsy today on the elephant. But they cautioned it could be weeks before the results are known.

Officials said the normal life expectancy for an elephant in captivity is 46 years.

“She was a little princess, and she had a big old Buddha belly,” Dr. Kelly Helmick, the zoo’s director of animal health, said as she teared up during the news conference. “She was just beginning to mature and drop her baby weight, and we were talking about her future as a mother.”

In fall 1998, the zoo spent $50,000 for travel and stud fees to send Chai to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., where she mated with a sire named Onyx. Before the trip, the zoo had spent six years trying to artificially inseminate the elephant.

Chai’s 22-month pregnancy ended Nov. 3, 2000, when the 235-pound calf was born at Woodland Park. Almost immediately zoo attendance doubled.

A competition to name the calf yielded the name Hansa (pronounced HUN-suh) meaning “supreme happiness” in Thailand, which was Chai’s birthplace.

“Our beloved Hansa’s short life was in the best hands of elephant care and management,” explained Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Dr. Deborah Jensen. “Of course, our elephant-care staff, other staff and volunteers, and our Board are deeply saddened. We will all miss her.

“We are a family here and we will provide as much support and comfort possible during this difficult time.”

Zoo officials said memorials for Hansa can be placed outside the zoo’s South Entrance at North 50th Street and Fremont Avenue North.

Maria French, president of Northwest Animal Rights Network in Seattle, said the organization has long fought for Woodland Park to end its elephant program.

She said the elephants at the zoo don’t have enough space to roam. This lack of space, she said, can cause behavioral and health problems in elephants.

“This is very sad Hansa has passed,” French said this afternoon. “Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call to Woodland Park Zoo and the [Seattle] City Council that there aren’t the resources to care for these animals at Woodland Park Zoo.” She suggests that Woodland Park and at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma released its elephants to a sanctuary in Tennessee.

Gigi Allianic, a zoo spokeswoman, said the zoo will continue to raise elephants, and Dr. Deborah Jensen, the zoo’s president and chief executive, said Hansa received only the best care.

“We will all miss her,” Allianic said. “We are a family here and we will provide as much support and comfort possible during this difficult time.”

Information previously reported in The Times and from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com