For years, animal rights activists have pushed for the retirement of two Asian elephants living at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Chai and Bamboo have been the subject of an impassioned debate around captive elephants, and how to best handle their long-term care.

Chai, 36, arrived at the Woodland Park Zoo in 1980 at just a year old. Since then, she has been treated as a possible contributor to the zoo’s future elephant population. She was reportedly artificially inseminated 112 times over the course of her life at the Woodland Park Zoo. She gave birth to a baby, Hansa, in 2000. Sadly Hansa passed away at 6.5 years old after contracting a strain of herpes virus specific to elephants. After Hansa’s death, the Woodland Park Zoo continued to carry out failed attempts at artificially inseminating Chai and producing more offspring.


Bamboo was brought to the United States from the wild in Thailand in 1968 and is now 48 years old. Unlike Chai, Bamboo has not spent all her life at the Woodland Park Zoo. After the birth of Chai’s baby Hansa, Bamboo was relocated to Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo as the elder elephant and the new baby were not getting along. Unfortunately, the two resident female Asian elephants at Point Defiance did not welcome Bamboo into their herd and she was sent back to Woodland Park Zoo after a few months’ time. To prevent conflict between Hansa and Bamboo, Bamboo was often kept part from the rest of the elephants, depriving the social creature of community and interaction with other elephants. This infuriated activists that believed Bamboo was being denied the movement and social bonding that elephants need to be healthy.

2015 hinted at the possibility of progress in getting these amazing animals relocated permanently to an elephant sanctuary, but they’ve unfortunately hit another roadblock in their quest for freedom from the confines of a zoo exhibit.

Tough Times In Seattle

While Chai and Bamboo’s individual lives have had some marked differences while inhabited the Woodland Park Zoo, both suffered in similar fashions. Health issues abound for elephants deprived of their natural habitat and lifestyles. Being forced to stand on hard substrate and without the opportunity to move much beyond their one-acre enclosure, Chai and Bamboo suffered foot problems, colic, arthritis and skin problems. Heart disease was also a threat given their limited range of exercise. They were also often forced to be kept indoors for large portions of the day throughout the winter to avoid the cool and wet Seattle weather.

Considering the unhealthy and challenging environment that Chai and Bamboo were both forced to endure as the result of their captivity, activists have been pushing for years to see the animals retired to a sanctuary to live out the rest of their years in the best setting possible. An opportunity for relocation to such an environment came in 2014 when the Woodland Park Zoo announced plans to phase out its elephant enclosure. Unfortunately, the decision was made several months later to send the elephants to the Oklahoma City Zoo instead of a sanctuary as animal activists had hoped for.


Wild_Asian_ElephantWikimedia Commons
The decision to relocate Chai and Bamboo to Oklahoma City Zoo was based largely on the ability to house the animals in a newer state-of-the-art enclosure. Completed in 2011 for $13 million, the 3.95- acre habitat boasts a pool, waterfall, large pasture, and space for up to 12 elephants. The opportunity to join a herd of five other Asian elephants already living at the zoo was cited as an added benefit of this transaction, acknowledging the social nature of the animals.

Zoo supporters and members of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephant Task Force would have you believe Chai and Bamboo were on their way to a much better life, but the road since their departure from Seattle has been no fairy tale and there’s still no promise of a happy ending.


The Long Journey to a New Home

A truck carrying Chai and Bamboo departed on April 15, 2015, to make the 40-hour, 2,000 mile trip from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Prospects may have been high for those involved in the process, but plans quickly took a turn when unexpected weather got in the way. With a snowstorm pounding Colorado and Wyoming, the caravan turned around in Salt Lake City and re-routed to the San Diego Zoo.

While in San Diego, Chai and Bamboo were kept in quarantine and away from the other elephants living in the zoo. They stayed in southern California for nearly a month before taking up the second leg of their trip, arriving in Oklahoma City on May 13, 2015. In addition to the $106,000 already budgeted for the original trip, the detour to San Diego added an additional $88,000 to the travel bill for the elephants’ relocation.


Upon arriving at the Oklahoma City Zoo, Chai and Bamboo entered another 30-day quarantine in which they could not share physical contact with other elephants at the zoo. In all, the few days’ drive plus added quarantine periods expanded the stress of travel and new environments to encompass a much larger chunk of time than originally planned for Chai and Bamboo.

What Chai and Bamboo Really Deserve

While zoo supporters may be applauding the move of Chai and Bamboo to the Oklahoma City Zoo, many disagree with the animals’ relocation for a variety of reasons. Instead, groups like the Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants continue to proclaim the superiority of a sanctuary to a zoo setting while pointing out many problems with their current living situation.

First, the problem with zoos in general is the lack of space they can provide elephants. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Asian elephants can inhabit a range of up to 40 square miles. Compare that to the handful of acres that the Oklahoma City Zoo has designated for the herd of seven Asian elephants, and it’s obvious the zoo can’t mimic the wild for these animals. A sanctuary such as Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) based in California could offer 15 acres of habitat for comparison.

An additional concern for Bamboo and Chai living in a zoo is the unnatural environment they are exposed to. Seattle’s cool and wet climate did not offer ideal weather for the elephants, but Oklahoma City Zoo offers no solution to this problem. There is still the threat of cold with an added threat of tornados, meaning the elephants could spend prolonged periods of time indoors. And if that weren’t enough, the elephants may be subjected to loud concerts in the amphitheater just a few hundred feet away from their enclosure.

The forced herd composition is yet another issue for Bamboo and Chai’s new living situation. Bamboo and Chai don’t even always get along with each other, and now they are expected to bond and live in harmony with five other elephants. If the group dynamics don’t work out like Bamboo’s attempt at relocating to the Point Defiance Zoo, will the elephants be forced to endure yet another journey to find a new home where they’re accepted? Unlike in the wild or in a large sanctuary setting, there is no space and freedom to separate oneself from other animals in conflict.

Finally, Chai and Bamboo’s new home comes with the expectation they’ll perform for zoo goers. Oklahoma City Zoo’s other elephant residents regularly display tricks and behaviors for crowds, and no doubt Chai and Bamboo will be expected to do the same. Far removed from a natural life, Chai and Bamboo’s life becomes that of a circus.


With all of the negative aspects of Chai and Bamboo’s new home, one must be wondering if this is really what these animals deserve. Even though their new digs may be considered an upgrade of sorts to their previous home in Seattle, the Oklahoma City Zoo still pales in comparison to the lives of elephants in the wild. These animals should have never been taken from their wild home to be put on display in the first place. As an endangered species, Asian elephant conservation should be happening in their native habitat – not in a captive environment that involves artificially inseminating a female 112 times because at best, all we will create are more captive elephants.

While they may not be candidates for release in their home of Vietnam, must they really be subjected to cramped and cold conditions in yet another zoo? They have served decades of their lives as attractions to pad the pockets of zoo owners. Don’t they finally deserve to retire in a sunny somewhere to live out the rest of their years in peace and happiness?

Lead image source: Wikimedia