Animal Writes
From 8 May 2005 Issue

Zoo's Last Elephant Is Dead
By Gary Wisby - [email protected]
Staff Reporter 

The last elephant at Lincoln Park Zoo, already the focus of animal rights groups because of pachyderm deaths there, died Sunday while being shipped to a new home in Salt Lake City.

Appearing distraught, zoo President Kevin Bell said he was "grieved to announce" that Wankie, 36, died of unknown causes two days after being loaded onto a truck for Utah and Hogle Zoo.

Bell emphasized the humane, thorough attention given Wankie during the move, but a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- which last Wednesday protested the move -- said her death was the zoo's fault.

"Wankie did not have to die," said PETA's Debbie Leahy. She charged that in its haste to avoid City Council hearings on its treatment of elephants, the zoo rushed Wankie to her death.

The African elephant was given "crate training" in preparation for the move for only two weeks, when it should have been a month, Leahy said.

In comparison with circus elephants, which are transported frequently, Wankie had only been moved twice previously, she said.

In 'great' condition Friday

"We will be calling on the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to file charges against Lincoln Park Zoo," Leahy said.

Bell said the zoo will be contacting USDA, too, to ask for an independent audit of Wankie's death by the agency and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

Citing fears of disruption, possibly by animal rights activists, the zoo said last week it would not release details of Wankie's transfer until it was complete. Reporters expecting to hear those details at a Sunday news conference instead were told of the animal's death. Wankie was in "great" condition when she was gradually coaxed into a crate Friday morning, Bell said.

"She was very calm. She had done this trip once before [to Chicago from the San Diego Zoo two years ago]," he said.

Her first trip was from Africa to the San Diego Zoo, her owner.

Accompanied by the zoo's chief veterinarian, lead elephant keeper and a second keeper, Wankie appeared fine until Saturday while the truck-and-van convoy was driving through Nebraska. Then "she went down in her crate" and began to experience breathing difficulties.

"At times, she appeared to improve, taking fluid and rising on her front legs," Bell said. Wankie was given medication and an enema and placed in a sling to help her stand.

Grief counseling slated

But her condition didn't improve after her arrival at the zoo in Salt Lake City, and after her "breathing was compromised" at 3:30 a.m. Sunday, a team of 20 animal care professionals and two veterinarians "made the difficult decision to euthanize her," Bell said.

Wankie's death was "devastating" to the staff at Lincoln Park Zoo, and a grief counselor will be made available to them today, said Bell.

PETA has been bringing its forces to bear on Lincoln Park Zoo since the deaths of two other elephants at the zoo last year -- Peaches, 65, who died of old age and Tatima, 35, of mycobacterium szulgai. Bell said a necropsy will be done to determine how Wankie died -- results of which probably won't be available for several weeks -- but that the cause of her death was "widely different."

Zoo officials said the median age reached by elephants in the wild is 42, but that like Peaches, some live into their 60s in captivity.

In March, Ald. George A. Cardenas (12th) called for the closing of the zoo's elephant exhibit. A hearing on his resolution is set May 12.

"There are no plans to bring elephants to the zoo in the near future," he said.

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