(Transfer the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant Bamboo, pictured above, to a sanctuary right away and let’s begin a discussion about how and when we’re going to close the elephant exhibit at the zoo.—Kurt Hochenauer)
Bamboo, the sole surviving elephant obtained by the Oklahoma City Zoo from a Seattle zoo, has suffered attacks from at least one or more elephants in her exhibit and is apparently kept frequently in isolation, according to zoo records.
The zoo documents were obtained through open-records requests by the Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants organization in Seattle. I personally retrieved the most recent set of documents at the Oklahoma City Zoo offices for the Seattle organization on Aug. 17.
Those records, along with previously obtained records, show 49-year-old Bamboo has had her tail bitten repeatedly and, in one case, suffered “bleeding from its tail amputation site.” Later her trunk was gashed after another elephant charged her. Another elephant, 37-year-old Chai, also obtained by the Oklahoma City Zoo from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in 2015, died in January. Yet another elephant at the zoo, 4-year-old Malee, died last October.
The elephant deaths and Bamboo’s precarious living situation should obviously raise questions about the level of care given to elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo and just the difficulty of keeping large captive animals healthy under a real quality-of-life paradigm. Is it even reasonable to assume elephants can thrive in Oklahoma’s geographical and environmental conditions or in any zoo at all?
The Oklahoma City Zoo obtained the Seattle-based elephants in 2015 when Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, like some other zoos, decided to end their elephant exhibit because of overall concerns about keeping the large animals in captivity.
As Alyne Fortgang, co-founder of the Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, points out: “Zoos ignore scientific knowledge when it comes to an elephant’s physical and psychological welfare. Elephants die young and suffer every single day in zoo confinement. It’s time for the Oklahoma City Zoo to retire the elephants to a sanctuary – anything less diminishes our humanity.”
From the obtained documents:
(1) Zoo reports show Bamboo’s tail was injured on December 31, 2015 and February 5, 2016. Bamboo suffered a bite wound on March 7, 2016, according to the records. A medical report dated April 14, 2016, which I obtained, noted the injuries lingered: “The tail tip injury is almost resolved.”
Here is some of the language from Bamboo’s medical reports about the bites:
December 31, 2015: “Keeper (BF) reported this animal to have sustained a tail wound. Examination of animal in stall. It was alert and moving well. There is a 9x3cm wound on the left ventral distal tail approximately 6cm from the tip. It is fresh and bleeding had just stopped. Keepers did not see injury by suspect a bite wound by a conspecific [another elephant].The wound was cleaned and dried.”
February 5, 2016: “Keepers report this animal sustained a bite on its tail by a conspecific. There was fresh clotted blood and the wound was superficial.”
March 7, 2016: “Keepers did not see what happened but it is most likely a bite wound from one of the other animals in the group.
March 8, 2016: “Supervisor (NN) reports this animal to be bleeding from its tail amputation site with a steady stream of blood. Instructed them to apply pressure to wound to stop bleeding. By the time I arrived the bleeding had stopped and only a bruise was seen. Animal was released and it walked around for 5 minutes, then the tail was rechecked and no reopening of the wound was seen. Likely this animal broke open a blood vessel on the wound site through normal swinging of the tail. Instructed keepers to monitor and if bleeding occurs again, to apply pressure again and contact veterinarian. Keepers estimate this animal lost between 50-150ml of blood. This is insignificant volume for this size animal.”</p
A “conspecific” means an animal from the same species or, in this case, another elephant or elephants. Note the use of the word “amputation” in the report.
Here’s some information about tail biting among elephants and how hard it is to treat in a medical sense:
Besides the fact that biting the tail, which is an extension of the backbone, is certainly extremely painful, the wound is also difficult to treat. A very great degree of familiarity between the handler and the elephant is required for the injured elephant to show its tail and allow it to be treated.
Zoo officials have yet to respond to my questions I submitted Friday evening about the tail-biting attacks faced by Bamboo and the fact she was later attacked again. I will obviously publish their responses, of course, especially those of OKC Zoo Executive Director Dwight Lawson, if they submit them to me, and I will gladly correct any factual errors in this post, as usual, but the records really speak for themselves.
(2) Bamboo was attacked by another elephant, Chandra, on April 25, 2016, according to an Animal Area Daily report, which states, “Chandra chased and pushed Bamboo. Bamboo has a superficial 6 inch long, two inch wide scrape on the anterior of her trunk.”
(3) Many daily reports state Bamboo is regularly isolated from the other elephants. For example, one report dated April 14, 2016 states: “Overnight Housing. Elephants: Bamboo inside sand area, all others access.” A report dated April 23, 2016 states: “Overnight Housing. Elephants: Access. Bamboo in the sand stall.” A report dated May 10, 2016 states: “Overnight Housing. Elephants: access, Bamboo inside sand area.” A report dated June 13, 2016 states: “Overnight Housing. Elephants: Bamboo inside sand area, all others accessed.”
If this isolation is for Bamboo’s protection it indicates there’s a problem with her gaining acceptance in the herd. Her age and health problems—she’s certainly not the star of the elephant “OKC Zoo Show”—don’t bode well for her in the herd or, really, it seems for other members of the overall zoo herd itself.
It’s not a good match. From my perspective, zoo officials need to quickly address this issue as a major medical emergency for Bamboo.
(4) A medical history report dated July 6, 2016, stated, “On exam the tail is still covered with dense scab material that is tightly adhered to the underlying tissue.” This is more than three months after the tail amputation report on March 8. Clearly, this was a major injury or maybe part of another injury. (Note the information above about healing tail bites on elephants.)
So there’s the scoop on what I know about this older elephant—Bamboo—that humans want to see for a minute or two but don’t really think how her daily life unfolds each day in captivity or how she’s treated by the other elephants. This comes, again, after two recent deaths of OKC Zoo elephants.
Many of the daily reports also contained information about Bamboo’s consistent foot problems and care. It’s common for elephants in captivity to suffer major foot problems because of the unnatural surface area—for them—upon which they walk or run as much as they can given their limited space.
Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo elephants organization had been obtaining the zoo records electronically, but that practice stopped when a city attorney claimed the organization’s requests were creating a disruption for zoo employees. The Seattle organization also recently filed a complaint with the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners after the death of Chai alleging negligence and substandard care.
The city is now requiring a representative of the Seattle organization show up in person and print out individual files. That’s what I did last Wednesday afternoon when the Seattle organization asked me to represent them locally. It would have been easier to simply turn the folders into compressed files and send them electronically.
The city attorney, Marsha Harrod, adamantly claimed the city was in compliance with open record laws. But it certainly isn’t compliant with basic common sense or compliant with treating people with basic respect to demand they perform unneeded, menial clerical duties, such as printing page after page of documents when it’s not necessary.
Why waste paper? It also raises the question of basic government transparency, of course. Just because a government entity can legally make it a hassle to obtain records doesn’t make it right. It sends the wrong message. I was charged $72 in printing costs when nothing really needed to be printed. I hope that $72 gets spent on taking care of Bamboo. I bet it won’t.
I wrote about the Oklahoma City Zoo last year. You can find the article here. I’m not a big proponent of zoos, in particular, but I can understand and don’t loudly criticize how some people think zoos can help people appreciate large, wild animals. Perhaps this presumed but too often fleeting appreciation will help save animals from eventual extinction because, as the zoo-vested narrative goes, it raises large-animal awareness. Many, many zoos promote this narrative, especially when it comes to elephants. Elephants draw the crowds and corporate sponsorships.
But there are better and more sustainable ways to save elephants.
I recognize, as well, most zookeepers are wonderful and decent animal lovers and animal-rights activists. I support their efforts to care for the animals. This is for the most part an argument between well-intentioned and compassionate people with concerns for animals and nature in general.
I won’t debate all that again on this post. I do hope that the recent elephant deaths and Bamboo’s dire situation will keep a spotlight on the OKC Zoo for the level of care it’s providing or not providing for all of its captive and caged animals.
Keeping elephants in captivity for entertainment purposes is not healthy for them and more people are becoming aware of the issue. There are two accredited elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. with vast terrain for these giant animals to roam.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus have ended elephant shows for example, after years of protests from animal rights activists over the way the elephants were treated. The Nashville Zoo recently sent their three elephants to a sanctuary. Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants note that 14 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have sent their elephants to either The Elephants Sanctuary in Tennessee or Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS) in California.
— Oakland Zoo (@oakzoo) August 17, 2016
I spent about two hours exploring the zoo elephant exhibit Saturday, and I didn’t note any hostility between any of the elephants. But I do think the outside enclosures are too small for the zoo’s elephants. That’s an opinion, of course. Bamboo was in an enclosure with four other elephants. One larger elephant, Rex, was in an even smaller enclosure. There’s no other way to put it: These giant animals are imprisoned in small spaces.
No matter what you think about the overall issue of keeping large animals in captivity, the heart-wrenching spectacle of an isolated, consistently attacked and injured older elephant with health problems enduring ongoing physical and emotional pain is not in the zoo’s or city’s best interests. It’s horribly sad and tragic as well.
Here’s what can be done: Transfer the Oklahoma City Zoo elephant Bamboo to a sanctuary right away and let’s start discussing how and when we’re going to close the elephant exhibit at the zoo.
— CNN (@CNN) August 13, 2016