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Bamboo and Chai to join Oklahoma City Zoo elephant family

As many of you know, we have spent the last three months carefully evaluating new homes for Asian elephants Chai and Bamboo in order to give them a chance to join a larger social herd and ensure their long-term health and well-being.

Bamboo at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Chai at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

We are happy to announce that we have selected Oklahoma City Zoo, which best meets our criteria based on recommendations from animal welfare experts: a social herd of Asian elephants into which Chai and Bamboo may successfully integrate, a state-of-the-art facility, a healthy environment free of active infectious disease, high caliber elephant keeper and veterinary staff, a restricted contact management system, and an established history of stable finances and leadership.

In the wild elephants live in multi-generational herds, so we are delighted we can place them with a herd that includes younger elephants to which Chai and Bamboo can be aunties!

The herd at Oklahoma City Zoo includes multiple generations. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo.

We anticipate moving the elephants in late March to mid-April and are currently training Chai and Bamboo to prepare for the road trip.

“We are delighted to be able to provide Bamboo and Chai a great new home with a family,” said Woodland Park Zoo Board Chair Laurie Stewart. “They will be with a larger, multi-generational herd, which is a primary recommendation of our Elephant Task Force. They will be cared for by some of the best elephant keepers in the country at a state-of-the-art exhibit. We are absolutely thrilled.”

Finding a new home for animals, especially elephants, is very complicated and requires a very thoughtful and thorough deliberation.

“Oklahoma City Zoo is the best choice and meets our requirements to provide the best social welfare in a healthy environment for Bamboo and Chai,” said Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Dr. Deborah Jensen. “They will have an opportunity to live and socialize with more elephants and they will continue to receive the same kind of exemplary care they received during their lifetime at Woodland Park Zoo.”

Oklahoma City Zoo’s Elephant Habitat

Oklahoma City Zoo opened its new Elephant Habitat in March 2011. The $13 million, state-of-the-art exhibit spans 9.5 acres, with 3.95 acres available for the elephants, and includes three spacious outdoor yards, a waterfall, and a technologically-advanced barn with amenities including views into the barn from a raised boardwalk. The Elephant Barn is 12,636 square feet with about 2,000 square feet of support space (mechanical rooms, keeper work space, second floor office), and features eight separate stalls with different configuration opportunities plus a community stall with sand substrate. Other barn highlights include a radiant floor heating system, a raised office with 360° view of interior, ambient lighting through windows and skylights and hydraulic-operated animal gates. 

To accommodate Asian elephants’ love of swimming, all three yards were designed with pools and giant shade structures. Two yards are .5 acres each and the largest of the yards, 2.6 acres, features a 12-foot deep, 214,000-gallon pool plus a waterfall and stream. A pavilion seats 400+ for elephant lovers to observe presentations demonstrating natural elephant behaviors including daily routines such as baths, foot care and training sessions. 

“Adding Bamboo and Chai will help round out our family. Their maturity plus experience with a baby will be valuable in broadening the social dynamics of our herd. We look forward to having these new members join our family,” said Dwight Lawson, Oklahoma City Zoo Executive Director/CEO.

The female elephants at Oklahoma City Zoo. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo.

Oklahoma City Zoo currently has an Asian elephant family of four females and a male, ranging in ages from 2 months old to 47 years old: female Asha, 20; female Chandra, 18, sister of Asha; female Malee, 4 in April, the daughter of Asha; female Achara, born December 2014, the daughter of Asha and Rex; and sole male Rex, 47, the father of Achara. 

Moving Bamboo and Chai

Woodland Park Zoo elephant care staff are currently training the elephants to prepare for the road trip. Bamboo and Chai will travel to Oklahoma City in individual, climate-controlled crates pulled by a tractor-trailer driven by one of the nation’s expert animal movers who specializes in moving elephants. “The timing of their departure will depend on the elephants’ readiness as well as ideal road conditions,” said Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s mammal curator. “We know our elephants are very special to thousands in our community, so we encourage everyone to come and see Chai and Bamboo before they head to their new home.” 

The 2,000-mile journey to Oklahoma City will take approximately 35 to 40 hours including stops every few hours to check on the animals and provide food and water. “We will take every precautionary measure to ensure that Bamboo and Chai arrive safely as we do for all of our animal transfers,” explained Ramirez. “Keepers from our expert elephant team and a veterinarian will follow in a car and we will have a contact list of zoo veterinarians and elephant care teams along the route in case of an emergency.” 

Oklahoma City Zoo has expertise in integrating herds and will follow a methodical plan that socializes Bamboo and Chai with the herd in incremental steps. According to Laura Bottaro, an animal curator at OKC Zoo, introductions will begin in the barn where the elephants can see, smell and touch one another through protective barriers. “During the introduction process, elephants work out a social hierarchy. This process can be immediate or it can take months. We will follow the cues of the animals,” said Bottaro. 

Woodland Park Zoo’s staff will spend as much time as necessary with Bamboo and Chai at their new home to help ease their transition to a new facility and help settle them into their new surroundings.

Factors in the Decision

Woodland Park Zoo Society Board announced in November 2014 it would phase out its on-site elephant program after several months of working to implement the recommendations of the Elephant Task Force to grow its Asian elephant herd and program. “We found that adding to the herd of our two elephants to create a multi-generational herd was not realistic in the foreseeable future and would work against the broader social welfare of Bamboo and Chai,” said Jensen. 

WPZ’s analysis included consideration of many of the other 32 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums that currently hold Asian elephants in the U.S. and the Performing Animal Welfare Society facility located in California. The Asian herd of two females at this facility has an active tuberculosis (TB) infection. As a consequence of the TB infection at this facility, Woodland Park Zoo’s elephants would be required to be socially isolated from, not integrated with, other Asian elephants. These circumstances alone—active TB infection in the herd and social isolation instead of herd integration—are insurmountable disqualifiers regardless of the potential space that may be available at the Performing Animal Welfare Society facility. 

Other factors that also weigh against the Performing Animal Welfare Society facility are that it does not have a yard or barns available today for Bamboo and Chai. Although this facility has said they would be willing to raise the money and build a new enclosure for the elephants, given Bamboo’s age, the associated delay and uncertainty weigh against this option relative to other facilities with existing space and availability. Even if a new yard were available, should the TB issues in the current Performing Animal Welfare Society herd prove resistant to resolution, Chai and Bamboo would have no herd in which to integrate, and should Bamboo die before such an integration, Chai would be alone. These are unacceptable risks in planning for the long-term health and welfare of these animals.

“The decision to relocate our elephants is a difficult one for our staff, volunteers, members and zoo family, but it is the right decision. All of us care deeply about these animals and we will continue to have a lifelong investment in their health and welfare,” said Jensen. “We are very grateful to Oklahoma City Zoo for opening their arms to Bamboo and Chai. We are enthusiastic that Chai and Bamboo can join an elephant family in Oklahoma.  This is a wonderful conclusion to a complicated chapter in their lives.”
Woodland Park Zoo will remain committed to supporting its elephant conservation projects in Borneo and Tanzania and will continue to play a key role in seeking legislation to ban trafficking in elephant ivory in the state of Washington. Every time you visit the zoo, you make this work possible. Together we are building a better future for wild elephants.

Thank you for your support and love for Bamboo and Chai and all of the animals that bring us hope and joy at Woodland Park Zoo.


Anonymous said…
I am saddened by this news...these creatures belong in an animal sanctuary.
Anonymous said…
They belong in another zoo where they will get excellent care.
Anonymous said…
Clearly, if you read the blog, you'd see that being in that sanctuary would've been the worst possible option for these two elephants. This is the sanctuary that the city council wanted them to go to. When people see the word "sanctuary" they think of freedom. But when zookeepers of AZA facilities see that word, they see places that are not held at as high of standards as AZA facilities. The fact that this sanctuary even wanted to take these elephants shows that they are not fit to care for them. Why would you take two elephants into your facility when you have an active TB infection in your herd? And not have space for them yet? And not be positive that you could raise the money for one in time? An AZA facility would never even consider taking in these elephants if this were the case for them.
SJSiff said…
First our Sonics, then our elephants?

I'm totally kidding. I actually have a good friend who lives in OKC, so maybe I can visit her and the elephants some time. We'll miss these ladies, but are happy they're being well taken care of. might be funny to put a Sonics logo on the transport that takes them to Oklahoma.
Anonymous said…
Both of the elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. (TES and PAWS) offer what no AZA zoo currently can: Spacious, species appropriate, natural habitat (vast acres of soft, natural earth, ponds, mud, dusting dirt, hillsides, trees to fell and browse, appropriate year-round climate, heated barns, a heated therapy pool, as well as both sanctuaries offer 24/7 care.

Since TES and PAWS care for elephants that come from zoos and circuses (where TB is most common) it is to be expected that sometimes elephants at the sanctuaries will test positive for TB. Since there is so much space at the sanctuaries, quarantines are effective.

This is not always the case at AZA zoos. Take the Oregon Zoo, for example. At first there was only one elephant that tested positive for TB, and now there are three. All eight elephants are held in a 1.5 acre exhibit. This is not enough space to quarantine and meet all of the elephants’ basic need for space.

TB aside, the number one killer of zoo and circus elephants is foot disease, arthritis and joint problems, which are direct results of small exhibit enclosures and hard floors and compacted ground. The Oklahoma Zoo will only offer more of the same in this regard. (Extremely cold winters where the elephants are held in small barns with hard floors, and many elephants forced to share a very small exhibit space will not help Bamboo and Chai’s physical or mental health. Indeed, Bamboo and Chai already show the physical manifestations of mental distress seen in zoo animals confined in too small spaces.)

Its nice to think that Bamboo and Chai will be “aunties” in this new group of elephants at the Oklahoma Zoo, but the WPZ elephants have never been successfully integrated with different elephants. If the elephants are aggressive and don’t get along, they will be stuck, again, in small segregated spaces? What is the contingency plan? At TES or PAWS, if the elephants chose to be alone or to integrate, they would have plenty of space either way.

Also, the Oklahoma Zoo practices something called "restricted contact"? What is that?

"Free Contact" means the elephants are controlled and intimidated with bullhooks, which often results in the elephants being injured or abused. (Here is the experience of one WPZ volunteer when the WPZ still practiced "free contact" and used bullhooks- its not pretty: )

"Protected Contact" is what both of the sanctuaries practice- this means that the elephants are never forced to perform any task because the zookeeper will inflict them with pain if they don't comply. Bullhooks are never used in true Protected Contact. Protected Contact depends on positive reinforcement and building trust.

What is this "restricted contact" practiced at the Oklahoma Zoo? It sounds a bit dubious.

PAWS has been operating successfully for 30 years. They have the highest rating from Charity Navigator. My understanding is that TES operates with a comfortable financial surplus. To my knowledge, there is no doubt about the financial stability or longevity of either sanctuary.
Anonymous said…
Woodland Park Zoo defended their gross mistreatment of elephants for years and we are supposed to believe this decision was about how much they care? This decision was about money. This zoo loved and cared about it's elephants so much the USDA issued a report criticizing how elephants were kept outside in the cold and rain.
Other than transportation costs, there is no financial transaction between the zoos. Woodland Park Zoo is a non-profit and any earnings are invested right back into our mission to save animals and their habitats. The welfare of our animals comes first, and the expert review report (published at gave us great insight on what we do well and where we can improve, which lead us to this thoughtful decision. In the wild, elephants live in multi-generational herds, and we are excited for Chai's and Bamboo's future as aunts and companions in their new herd.
To follow up on the most recent anonymous comment in this thread:

In our thorough assessment and careful deliberation, there are no viable sanctuary options that satisfy our criteria, and we have already outlined some of the unacceptable risks to the elephants’ long-term health and welfare. OKC Zoo best meets our criteria and we are excited for their future there, where they will receive exemplary care in a top-notch facility with extraordinary indoor and outdoor facilities for all weather.

The staff at OKC Zoo are very experienced with introductions and they will gradually socialize Bamboo and Chai. Introductions will begin in the barn where the elephants can see, smell and touch one another through protective barriers. Introductions are done in incremental steps and their staff will take their cues from the animals. It is a process that can be immediate or take months.

We went through a very thoughtful deliberation in evaluating a new home for our elephants, as we do for any of our animals. We carefully assessed the herd and staff at OKC Zoo and are confident in their socialization plan and their passion, expertise and professionalism. They are enthusiastically anticipating the arrival of our two girls, and we are optimistic that Bamboo and Chai will be compatible with this herd and social grouping. Chai will thrive in the role of aunt and Bamboo has the potential to become the herd matriarch.

Restricted contact is protected contact. Both Woodland Park Zoo and OKC Zoo work within restricted (aka protected) contact, and this was a requirement of our criteria.
Anonymous said…
The PAWS Santuary in California may also be subject to drought in the future which may cause a huge problem for that facility as well as the population of California.
Michael Q said…
I think Woodland Park Zoo is one of the best zoos I’ve visited. After hearing that Chai and Bamboo are moving to Oklahoma City Zoo, I think, the decision wasn’t looking out for their best interest.

Since November, the discussion on the new location for Chai and Bamboo has been heated on both sides (Sanctuary or Zoo) and personally I think a sanctuary is the best choice for them both physically and mentally.

The Performing Animal Welfare Society, would give Chai and Bamboo both the space and the closest natural environment on this continent. Chai and Bamboo would also have the companionship of an older elephant (Gypsy is her name) and the temperatures are better suited for Chai and Bamboo.

An example of this current situation was the former Toronto Zoo elephants (Iringa, Toka, and Thika). Back in 2011, Toronto Zoo decided to phase out their elephant program like Woodland Park Zoo is currently doing. Two years went by without any final decision on the move to a sanctuary (PAWS) or another zoo.

Finally in November of 2013, Iringa, Toka, and Thika were destined to move to the Performing Animal Welfare Society. Almost a year and half has gone by and all three elephants have settled into PAWS comfortably and can now live the rest of their lives in the most closest natural environment to native Africa.

So my question is, why can’t Chai and Bamboo experience the freedom of a sanctuary like the former Toronto Zoo’s elephants have.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Meeting Chai's and Bamboo's social needs is our top priority for ensuring their long-term well-being. We outlined in the story above the specific concerns we have about the ability to meet these social needs at PAWS, as well as other risks. The Elephant Task Force's recommendations ( focused on providing our girls with a multi-generational herd, which we are best able to do at OKC Zoo. In the wild, elephants live in multi-generational herds, and this dynamic is very rewarding for female Asian elephants. We're excited for Chai and Bamboo to have the chance to be companions and even aunts to younger elephants, not just for the social rewards now, but also for the long-term family this provides.
Michael Q said…
Thank for replying to my comments and question.

If I may ask, from where or how does Woodland Park Zoo receive the information about PAWS?

Does Woodland Park Zoo have direct contact with PAWS about the relocation of Chai and Bamboo?
Steve Davis said…
Can see a bunch of you have no idea of where Oklahoma City is...Extremely cold??? When??? We have yet to see a day this winter under 16 degrees, and then just for a short time...we've probably had more days this winter over 70 than in the past. Just where do you think we are... Antarctica?? The weather is very flexible here in Oklahoma... Our elephants have enjoyed good health here. We have a brand new elephant habitat, with spacious indoor facilities for inclement weather and for hot days too! Our Zoo has good support and many visitors who also enjoy the new facilities. Check it out before you slam it!!
Hi Alexia - Bamboo and Chai are still working on their training, getting comfortable with going in and out of the travel crate. We are still looking at a spring window for their departure, and when we get closer to finalizing a date, we will let you all know. We recommend planning a visit now to ensure a chance to see the girls before their move. Hope this helps!