- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - A Seattle-based advocacy group on Tuesday asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the recent death of an Asian elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo, saying it’s concerned the zoo wasn’t equipped to care for the animal.

The elephant, named Chai, was controversially transferred from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo to the Oklahoma facility eight months ago, along with another elephant, named Bamboo. Zookeepers found Chai dead on her side in the elephant yard Saturday morning. A necropsy turned up no definitive cause of death or obvious signs of infectious disease, but the zoo said final lab results aren’t expected for a month or more.

Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, which wanted Chai and Bamboo sent to a sanctuary in California instead, said it filed a complaint Tuesday with the USDA, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act. Chai died at 37, even though the group said Asian elephants can live 70 years in the wild and the median lifespan for captive elephants is 47 years.

The USDA said it would evaluate whether to open an investigation. Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said they planned to hold a vigil for Chai at the Oklahoma City Zoo on Wednesday.

Chai had received regular checkups and observation from keepers, who reported that she seemed to be healthy, the Oklahoma City Zoo reported on its website. The zoo did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the USDA complaint. Another elephant, a 4-year-old Asian elephant named Malee, died of a viral infection there in October.

Among the Seattle organization’s concerns are whether the Oklahoma zoo adequately monitored the elephants, provided them adequate protection as overnight temperatures fell into the low 30s, and that the zoo had no apparent way to raise an elephant that has gone down on its side - which can kill them as the weight of their bodies crush their organs. Chai had previously suffered from chronic foot disease, which is a leading cause of death of elephants in captivity, the group said.

“It is evident that staff did not monitor Chai overnight and it is unknown whether her death was protracted or immediate, or whether prompt intervention could have prevented Chai’s death or remediated her suffering,” the group said in a news release.

Keeping elephants in zoos has become increasingly controversial as critics question whether the institutions can provide the herd animals with the space and companionship they need. Woodland Park Zoo decided to close its exhibit after one of its elephants died, leaving it with just two. Officials considered sending them to a sanctuary, but none could immediately accept them or featured a multigenerational herd. Oklahoma City offered what they described as state-of-the-art elephant care.

Many zoos have closed their elephant exhibits in the past few decades, and new federal guidelines that encourage a herd of at least three elephants could require others to close by next year.

At the same time, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week approved a permit allowing the Dallas Zoo, Nebraska’s Henry Doorly Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas to import a total of 18 African elephants. The association says the animals, once threatened by drought and poaching in Swaziland, will receive the best possible care and help inspire the public to conserve wild elephants.

There are about 287 Asian and African elephants in AZA-accredited zoos around the country, many of which contribute to anti-poaching and habitat conservation measures.

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