Chai's death re-ignites debate over whether elephants should be kept in zoos

SEATTLE - One of the elephants moved from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo last year has died. Zookeepers in Oklahoma City say they found Chai in the elephant yard this morning. She was 37 years old.

A small group of animal activists stood outside the Woodland Park Zoo today mourning the Asian elephant who spent most of her life in Seattle.

“She should have been in the prime of her life, she’s only 37 years old,” says Lisa Kane, a member of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants.

Chai and another elephant named Bamboo were moved from Woodland Park to the zoo in Oklahoma City last year, despite protests from many activists who said the elephants should be moved to a sanctuary.

“Elephants in general should not be held in captivity,” says Wendy Ysasi, another member of FWPZE. “They do not thrive in zoo captivity.”

They say Chai’s unexpected death proves that zoos can’t provide the type of care elephants need. But a spokesperson from the Oklahoma City Zoo disagrees.

“I trust in my colleagues and what we know and how we do our jobs,” says Tara Henson. “Sometimes those that don’t believe in what we’re doing may not have the same kind of experience or knowledge that we do.”

She says they don’t know why Chai died. She seemed to be eating and behaving normally yesterday. This is the second elephant death in Oklahoma City in the last few months.

“I can’t say that they’re unrelated, because I’m not a veterinarian,” says Henson. “But I can say that I don’t think we should be concerned about that.”

But animal lovers in Seattle say they are even more concerned about Bamboo now. They say she doesn’t belong in a zoo anymore.

“I’d like to see zoos put the interests of elephants first for a change, instead of their own self-interest,” says Kane. “Allow them to retire to sanctuaries.”

The Woodland Park Zoo put a message on Facebook saying they’re deeply saddened and that they loved Chai.

The Oklahoma City Zoo says the average life expectancy for a female Asian elephant is 47 years. They’re performing a necropsy to determine why Chai died at age 37. Initial results may not be available until early next week.

PETA released a statement Sunday morning, calling for the Oklahoma City Zoo's elephant exhibits to be shut down immediately.

"Chai did not have to die this way, in this crowded zoo, when she had had a chance to live in a sanctuary and be watched over and cared for," the statement read in part.

PETA also echoed calls to transfer any remaining elephants to an accredited sanctuary.