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Elephants are on the road to Oklahoma City Zoo

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

A new chapter began for female Asian elephants Bamboo and Chai when they stepped into elephant-sized travel crates, were loaded on the flatbed truck, and left Woodland Park Zoo for their new home at Oklahoma City Zoo. The truck pulled out at 6:15 p.m. PST today, April 15.

Bamboo and Chai at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Mandi Fillmore/Woodland Park Zoo.

Bamboo, 48, and Chai, 36, were the last remaining elephants at Woodland Park Zoo. Their departure came after four months of planning to ensure they can join a family of Asian elephants and live in a socially enriching environment.

The 2,000-mile journey to Oklahoma City will take approximately 35 to 40 hours. A total of three elephant experts, two veterinarians and three staff with the transport consultant are accompanying the truck. The trip will be straight through except to stop every few hours to check on the animals’ well-being and to provide food and change water; the elephants will have continuous access to water during the trip, not just at stops. The truck has a 65-gallon water tank, which will be refilled as needed along the way.

“We understand that many zoo members and members of our community may be disappointed by the departure but legal disputes against Woodland Park Zoo complicated our ability to announce notice in advance,” said Dr. Deborah Jensen, Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO. Further, for the safety and security of Bamboo and Chai, the exact timing of departure could not be announced. “Our priority was to help our elephants make a smooth and safe transition into the crates and onto the truck without incident.”

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

The elephants also are being monitored via wireless cameras in the truck. “There is always an inherent risk in transporting animals and we are taking every precautionary measure to ensure that Bamboo and Chai arrive safely, as we do for all of our animal transfers,” said Martin Ramirez, Woodland Park Zoo’s mammal curator. As a contingency plan, zoo veterinarians and elephant experts are available along the travel route pre-arranged to respond if needed.

“Just like people pack coolers and food for road trips, we ‘packed a trunk’ for our elephants consisting of 200 pounds of pellets, 660 pounds of hay, four cases of watermelon, one case of cantaloupe, one case of honeydew melon, two ball toys, five bags of wood shavings for the crates and feed tubs,” added Ramirez.

Preparing elephants for a move required extensive planning. For the past two months, Woodland Park Zoo keepers worked diligently to acquaint the elephants with their travel crates. On a daily basis, the elephants were given access to the crates. “They became comfortable rather quickly and keepers offered positive reinforcement with food rewards and verbal praise,” said Ramirez.

Woodland Park Zoo's veterinary staff pose in scrubs painted by Chai and Bamboo as a special memento before their departure. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo announced in February that Bamboo and Chai would move to Oklahoma City Zoo to join a family with a larger, multi-generational herd, which was a primary recommendation of the Woodland Park Zoo’s Elephant Task Force. Jensen said Oklahoma City Zoo was selected because it meets Woodland Park Zoo’s set of criteria based on recommendations from animal welfare experts including: 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, excellent keeper and veterinary care, a restricted contact management system (keepers and animals are always separated by protective barriers), and an established history of stable finances and leadership.

According to Dr. Nancy Hawkes, Woodland Park Zoo’s general curator, elephants in the wild live in multi-generational herds. “We’re very excited about the opportunity for Bamboo and Chai to join a growing family at their new home where they’ll have the chance to be companions and even aunts to younger elephants. This is a very natural social grouping for elephants,” said Hawkes.

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, the daughter of Asha; female Achara, born December 2014, the daughter of Asha and Rex; and sole male Rex, 47, the father of Achara.

Female elephants at Oklahoma City Zoo. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Zoo.

Upon arriving at Oklahoma City Zoo, Bamboo and Chai will be unloaded from the travel crates into the barn where they will be in quarantine for 30 days, which is standard procedure for any new animal at the zoo. During the quarantine period, the elephants will have access to two stalls inside the barn and one exhibit outdoor yard, and will have visual, auditory and olfactory contact with the other elephants. Their new keepers will provide them with a variety of enrichment items and favorite toys to help keep them stimulated and comfortable as they adjust to their new surroundings. In addition, Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant staff will spend as much time as necessary with Bamboo and Chai to help ease their transition to a new facility and help settle them into their new surroundings.

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 Oklahoma City 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.

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. 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.

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 (PAWS) facility located in California. PAWS currently has only one female Asian elephant remaining, which is not a natural social grouping for elephants, and is struggling with an active tuberculosis 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.

Elephants in Borneo, courtesy of Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife Hutan Elephant Conservation Program.

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.

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SJSiff said…
Good luck, ladies. We'll miss you!
Anonymous said…
Safe travels girls and will be eagerly awaiting updates as you settle into your new elephant family. Will miss you but have many happy memories and photos of visiting you at WPZ.