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Chai suffered, documents show. Seattle advocates want answers

IMAGE: Chai, a 37 year-old female elephant, is mechanically hoisted up after going down and not being able to lift herself up at the Oklahoma City Zoo on December 18, 2015. She had lost over 1,000 pounds in 8 months before dying in a state of emaciation. In this image her spine is protruding. (hand out image from Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants)
April 8, 2016
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One of Seattle’s most beloved zoo animals, Chai, a 37-year-old female Asian elephant, suffered for months before her January death at the Oklahoma City Zoo, said a Seattle advocacy group after reviewing medical documents provided by Oklahoma City.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants are now calling on the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to investigate the zoo and it’s veterinarian, Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino. D’Agostino is the Oklahoma zoo’s Director of Veterinary Services.

Seattle animal advocacy group obtained the documents through a public disclosure request.

At the heart of the complaint prepared by Julia N. Allen, PhD, DVM, are allegations of inadequate veterinary care and poor record keeping of Chai, and claims that “red flags” concerning the elephant’s deteriorating condition were not properly addressed.

According to the documents, while Chai was at the OCZ she:

  • Lost over 1,000 pounds – 13% of her body weight – and was emaciated at the time of her death;
  • Had the same herpes virus that killed a young elephant at the OCZ;
  • Had difficulty getting up on four occasions, twice needing a mechanical hoist to lift her;
  • Had toxic cells in her blood commonly associated with a bacterial infection in her bloodstream;
  • Had 25 untreated pus-filled abscesses on her side;

 

“All of these issues are indications that something was seriously wrong with Chai,” said Dr. Allen in a press release. “As a licensed veterinarian, Dr. D’Agostino should have recognized them as warning signs.”

Instead the OCZ issued glowing reports to the public said the group. At the time of Chai’s death in a press release the zoo said she “seemed to be healthy.”

The Oklahoma zoo could not be reached for comment but posted a media release on their website discrediting the report, “Our accreditation standards are rigorous and the Zoo has been compliant with any concerns or allegations made against us. We will continue to be forthcoming and transparent about our elephant program. The Zoo’s director of veterinary services, Dr. Jennifer D’Agostino, has over 15 years of experience in caring for and studying elephants. She is a board-certified specialist in zoological medicine from the American College of Zoological Medicine. The complaints being lodged against her are coming from individuals with little to no experience with these animals.”

IMAGE: Chai, forages for food. Woodland Park Zoo officials announced at a press conference Friday that 48-year-old Bamboo and 36-year-old Chai will be moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in late March to mid-April. (photo © Karen Ducey Photography)

Chai, forages for food. Woodland Park Zoo officials announced at a press conference Friday that 48-year-old Bamboo and 36-year-old Chai will be moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo in late March to mid-April. (photo © Karen Ducey Photography)

Almost exactly one year ago, April 15, 2015, Chai and Bamboo, 48, had been transferred from the Woodland Park Zoo to the Oklahoma City Zoo in a difficult and lengthy journey while chained in enclosed metal crates onboard a flatbed semi truck.

Their trip was arranged shortly after the death of Watoto, a 45-year-old female African elephant, who died of causes associated with joint problems in August 2014. Three months later the Woodland Park Zoo decided to close its elephant exhibit.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants (Friends), had worked for almost ten years to get the elephants owned by the Woodland Park Zoo transferred to a sanctuary, including multiple protests at Seattle City Council meetings, rallies outside the zoo and legal battles that went all the way up to the district’s federal court.

IMAE: Carol Guilbault speaks at a Seattle City Council public hearing asking the council to stop funding for the Woodland Park Zoo until they retire the remaining two elephants, Chai and Bamboo, to sanctuaries. "Are we really going to wait for Chai or Bamboo to die?" she asked referring to the recent death of Watoto, a 45 year old African elephant who had been at the zoo. "Are you going to let this happen on your watch? You have a chance to step up. Stop making excuses about not having any power and do the right thing."

Carol Guilbault speaks at a Seattle City Council public hearing asking the council to stop funding for the Woodland Park Zoo until they retire the remaining two elephants, Chai and Bamboo, to sanctuaries. “Are we really going to wait for Chai or Bamboo to die?” she asked referring to the recent death of Watoto, a 45 year old African elephant who had been at the zoo. “Are you going to let this happen on your watch? You have a chance to step up. Stop making excuses about not having any power and do the right thing.”

But the zoo decided to send them to Oklahoma City. The advocacy group feared the trip could threaten the elephant’s health and safety and that they would have a poorer quality of life.

IMAGE: Elephants Chai and Bamboo leave the Woodland Park Zoo in windowless crates strapped on a flatbed trailer on Wednesday, April 15, 2015.

Elephants Chai and Bamboo leave the Woodland Park Zoo in windowless crates strapped on a flatbed trailer on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. (© Karen Ducey Photography)

IMAGE: Co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, Alyne Fortgang (left), cries in despair “I’m so sorry!” after a truck transporting elephants Chai, 36 and Bamboo,48 left for the Oklahoma City Zoo. (© Karen Ducey Photography)

Co-founder of Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, Alyne Fortgang (left), cries in despair “I’m so sorry!” after a truck transporting elephants Chai, 36 and Bamboo, 48 left for the Oklahoma City Zoo. (© Karen Ducey Photography)

National awareness of the high death rate of elephants in captivity in zoos was examined in an investigative report in the Seattle Times in 2014 (Glamour Beasts) that questioned the effectiveness of zoo’s programs in the name of conservation.

The elephant advocates’ worst fears were met early this year when, after only 8 ½ months after her arrival Chai prematurely died. Her original necropsy showed she died from systematic bacterial infection reported the Seattle Times. Upon examination of her skull the Oklahoma City Zoo cited the cause of death as a severe tooth abnormality where her upper molars were severely deformed and twisted with little remaining chewing surface as the cause in Fox 25 news report. The condition would have been undetectable when she was alive and untreatable according to the zoo.

The Seattle-based advocacy group had asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February to investigate Chai’s death.

Her death came on the heels of the death of another young elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo. 4 year-old Malee, died of a Herpes virus (EEHV-1A) in October 2015, five months after Chai arrived. Chai herself had been exhibiting these symptoms for three months according the medical reports provided by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. According to an article in the Seattle Times she most likely spread the virus to Malee.

The advocates are asking the Oklahoma Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to conduct an impartial and thorough investigation and take appropriate action.

“Based on the appearance that Chai received sub-standard care under Dr. D’Agostino, we have grave concerns about the level of care Bamboo is receiving for her captivity related medical issues—as well as the health of the other elephants,” said Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of Friends in the press release. “It’s time that these elephants are retired to a sanctuary where they could heal physically and psychologically.”

Chai’s skeleton is being evaluated at the Museum of Osteology in Moore, OK. where it is is currently being processed for a life-sized display.

On the day of Chai’s death while walking at the Cayucos State Beach in CA. Fortgang noticed a beautiful sunset.

“It was mystical, emotional,” she writes. “I was stopped in my tracks… I know she had a hand in it letting us know that she is happy and free.”

IMAGE: photo courtesy of Alyne Fortgang taken on January 30, 2016.

photo courtesy of Alyne Fortgang taken on January 30, 2016.

 

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