The Life of Chai
Chai, a 37-year-old Asian elephant, was found dead on the morning of Jan. 30th, at the Oklahoma City Zoo, having finally been released from a lifetime of misery. Her story resonated with those of us in the Seattle area, where last year she was the center of a huge controversy. But let me start from the beginning.
Chai was born in Bangkok in 1979. Her name means ‘victory,’ but she had few of her own. At the age of one she was pulled from her mother, not having yet been weaned, and donated by Thai Airlines to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, which had an active breeding program. There she lived with three other elephants. Their indoor quarters were in either the South Room, 8’ x18,’ or the larger North Room, 20’ x 42.’ At night they had to be chained together to keep them from rolling over each other in their sleep.
Once she had reached her teens, the zoo attempted to breed her, chiefly through artificial insemination. It’s an unnatural and highly invasive procedure which demands that the animal remain still for long periods. To insure this, they would chain each leg to an anchor and pull them up tight, a technique called short-chaining. After 91 attempts they gave up, and shipped her to Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, MO. In Seattle she’d been described as shy and submissive, with no history of aggression. Within three days at Dickerson Park she “had turned dangerous, requiring restraints and physical punishment.” The latter consisted of being jabbed or beaten with a bullhook, a medieval-looking instrument (Google it if you don’t believe me). After one beating lasting over two hours, the zoo was fined by the USDA. Wait. What does the Dept. of Agriculture to do with zoos and elephants? The enforce the Animal Welfare Act (or are supposed to), which chiefly applies to food animals like beef, pork, and chicken, but also to animals in captivity from zoo animals to killer whales doing tricks for fat kids eating cotton candy.
Chai wasn’t accepted by the herd at Dickerson; she was rammed, gouged, and one of them bit off a piece of her tail. She was repeatedly dosed with Valium and Azaperone to relieve her stress, but she was losing weight and her health was deteriorating. After three years she was shipped back to the Seattle zoo, having lost 1300 or her approximate 7000. But she was also pregnant. She gave birth to a female, Hansa, in 2001. Eventually she was subjected to another 21 artificial insemination procedures, bringing the total to 112. Hansa only lived for six years, dying in 2007. The cause was a deadly form of herpes virus called EEHV — elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus. EEHV is a problem wherever there are captive elephants. Woodland Park Zoo had already lost another, Watoto, to EEHV in 2014. The mortality rate for elephants in captivity is 40%, triple what it is in the wild.
Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants is an advocate group. One of its founders is Alyne Fortgang, who says she had visited Chai and the other elephants over 100 times. “Seeing her was devastating. She had severe stereotypical behavior, bobbing her head up and down, swaying back and forth on her front legs.” she said. “They don’t do this in the wild. It’s a way of coping with trauma and stress and severe boredom.” Zoo officials deny that she was that stressed. By 2015, the zoo had decided to end its breeding program. It would farm out Chai and another female, Bamboo, age 48. It was a huge controversy for months. The Friends group and others wanted them sent to an elephant sanctuary. There were legal battles, but in the end they were sent to the Oklahoma City Zoo. In April the journey began, amidst protests. A series of storms rerouted them to the San Diego Zoo for a month. They arrived in Oklahoma City on May 15th, but neither Chai no Bamboo were part of the breeding program. In Chai’s case it may have been past difficulties; in 2006 an abortion was performed at an early stage, and in 2008 she miscarried. At any rate, Chai was dead eight months later. A necropsy showed she died of a bacterial infection, but had shown no signs of illness. Zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson said she “had been acting normally, enjoying time with her herd mates, so there was nothing to indicate anything was wrong.”
Elephants are some of nature’s most intelligent animals. They are matriarchal, highly social and familial, and capable of forming deep emotional bonds. They display anger, grief, joy, and play. They mourn their dead. Last year they amazed us in South Africa. Lawrence Anthony, known as “the elephant whisperer,” was well known for organizing the rescue of the animals at the Baghdad Zoo after the 2003 invasion by the U.S. Back in the late 1990s he helped establish the Thula Thula animal preserve, and brought in formerly violent “rogue” elephants, and rehabilitated them. He and his family lived about twelve miles from their grounds. On March 2nd of last year, he died. Two days later, elephants began arriving, slowly walking in single file, surrounding Anthony’s home. Anthony’s son said they hadn’t seen them close to the house for about a year and a half. They hung around for a couple days, then drifted back to their home grounds. Were they paying homage? Who can say, but why else would they have been there at that exact time?
Why am I dragging you through this relentlessly depressing narrative? Because these kinds of things are routine. With the animals we raise for food, it’s much worse, as numerous videos from whistleblowers have shown. Meanwhile, we are all complicit in these crimes against nature. We know where our meat comes from, and we know how it was treated. Only the vegetarians get a pass on this one, I’m afraid. This problem is a human one; we do this to animals everywhere, and there’s only one reason: profit. It’s cheaper to pile animals on top of each other, while shooting them up with antibiotics. This isn’t American, it’s capitalism — short term gain at the expense of all else. You may have heard of the Japanese delicacy, shark fin soup. Fishermen pick up sharks in nets, cut off all the fins, then dump the living animal back into the ocean. Unable to swim, it sinks to the bottom and suffocates.
These atrocities make me sometimes wish for the extinction of humanity as soon as possible, for the benefit of the rest of the planet. Nevertheless, public awareness has led to increasing advocacy groups. They run from the benign, like the ASPCA, to the more extreme, like PETA and ALF, the Animal Liberation Front. The sad irony is that while our silence permits the ongoing mistreatment of animals, Americans spend $60 billion dollars a year on their pets. And where the hell are the USDA inspectors at these factory farms? Ask the Republicans. For decades they’ve tried to cut every government agency that regulates anything. You know, smaller government and all that. Would be willing to pay twice the price per pound for meat, if we could be sure it was grown humanely and safely? Could we afford it? Americans eat too much meat, we’ve heard that from all kinds of health studies. Maybe if we used it more as a condiment, as Europe and Asia do, then we could afford it. There’s a market niche that needs filling.
I know, I know, we’re all busy working and trying to survive. For myself, I try whenever possible to buy cage free chickens and eggs, knowing that the term “cage-free” means there may be a small door at the end of a gigantic building, and the chickens never go outside. It’s difficult to find beef or pork that is pasture fed, and if I could, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. But these aren’t justifications, they’re excuses. The point is, we can do better. Humans have an almost unlimited capacity for love and compassion. We should show these qualities more often. Personally, I’m totally opposed to having animals in prisons. You want to see a lion or elephant? Go to Africa. Oh, we’ve destroyed their natural habitats? Then we should begin restoring them. I’m even more put off by torturing animals in laboratories, and I don’t care how many babies die. They’re never going to find a wonder drug cure for cancer. Cancer is nature telling us we’ve filling our bodies with poison. The rest of these experiments are to develop ever more addictive drugs with nasty side effects. And if they need animals to experiment on to find live-saving drugs and treatments, let them use pedophile priests. Apparently there’s an overabundance of them.